"The term 'unified communications' has become so over-used it's almost trite," says Mark Swendsen, Shoretel's European managing director. "Do people understand it? I'm not sure the vendors do - they all have different versions of it."

That must be a painful admission for the boss of a company which defines itself as 'a leading provider of pure-IP unified communications solutions, but Swendsen isn't finished yet.

"Nobody goes out to buy unified comms - it's not something they ask for by name," he says, adding: "Even Gartner defines 16 different elements that make up unified communications, and there's no-one doing all of them." he adds.

"The weakest bit for the whole market was when Cisco took its entire price list and relabelled everything on it with the prefix Unified Communications."

And yet, he still believes it genuinely defines something useful: "Part of it is simply the ability to choose communication methods and move between them, for instance escalating from email to instant messaging."

Perhaps a little surprisingly, he's a fan of often-criticised moves such as organisations banning the use of email one day a week. "Email vacations force people to use other tools, and that changes how they communicate - it stops them getting stuck in one mode," he explains.

That, he suggests, could be what makes them try instant messaging, pick up the IP phone - or simply get up and walk over to the other person's desk. All of these other communication methods have their place, with the trick being to figure out which is the most appropriate to the task at hand.

"I think there are technologies you don't know you need until you use them," he adds. "You could think of the very first fax machines, for example, or email, or even TiVO."

The other issue, he notes, is that although you can install unified comms alongside a legacy PBX, in reality it tends to go hand in hand with a switch to IP telephony.

"IP telephony is an event-driven market. If your phone system isn't broken or end-of-life, you're not going to buy a new one, but when you do get one, it's an opportunity to set a new long-term direction for your company. Then the telephony ends up being a core and dictating what else you can select."

It's a business that's going through change too, with companies such as Shoretel knowing that it's acquire or be acquired - and that if they are to grow they'll need help.

"We have $100 million in our war-chest and a strategy for growth," Swendsen says. "We want to own the sub-1000 user SMB market, say, and then use our success to target verticals.

"Another part of it is opening up to technology partners, such as Microsoft and IBM-Lotus. While they have complementary products, we don't compete with for example Microsoft at any level - yes, you can make calls through OCS, but it's not a business-class PBX."

He adds: "We are in the middle of consolidation in the market and we'll see it accelerate this year. I think we will see Nortel acquiring [the unified comms parts of] Siemens, for instance - Aastra already bought Ericsson. It's a big market, so there is room for growth, but the industry is changing and moving quickly, and people need to bulk out."