Unified Communications Hold Opportunities, Challenges for SMBs: IDC Report

Approximately 45 percent of medium-sized businesses use some type of conferencing technology.

A report from IT research firm IDC found increasing SMB interest in a broad range of enterprise and consumer communications capabilities, including voice over IP (VOIP); conferencing technologies that support audio, Web and video; and unified messaging, which integrates voice and data messaging. Still, the report noted relatively few have implemented a comprehensive, end-to-end unified communications (UC) system that can deliver connectivity and collaboration capabilities beyond the sum of its separate parts.

More than one-third of small businesses (firms with less than 100 employees) and nearly three-quarters of medium-size companies (firms with 100-999 employees) currently own at least one unified communications component technology. The report found SMB interest in adding UC technologies is considerable: More than 30 percent of small firms and 55 percent of midsize firms cite plans to add at least one UC component in the next 12 months.

IDC researchers noted VOIP technology has established a solid foothold in the medium-size business segment, and more than 30 percent of firms with 100 to 999 employees use it. IDC said it believes the relative reluctance of smaller firms to deploy VOIP technology may be due to multiple factors, including lack of awareness, unwillingness to invest in new telecommunications infrastructure, and a perception of VOIP as being less secure and providing lower call quality and less resilience during power outages.

"Many SMB business and IT priorities relate to communication and collaboration," says Justin Jaffe, research manager for SMB and remote worker/home business research at IDC. "SMBs are interested in both underlying capabilities and specific UC technologies. The real challenge for vendors is to effectively connect the benefits of unified communications to improved business performance. Show how UC can make a real difference in productivity and efficiency, and SMBs will flock to it."

The economic downturn underscored the importance of expense management, especially for midmarket companies, and restrictions on business travel have contributed to the popularity of virtual alternatives to in-person meetings, the report said. Approximately 45 percent of medium-size businesses currently use some type of conferencing technology.

Although SMB ownership of mobile resources-from smartphones to notebooks to media tablets-continues to increase along with interest in supporting remote workers, adoption of unified messaging remains modest. With that noted, the percentage of firms citing plans to add it in the next 12 months has increased since the previous IDC survey.

In the report, "Unified Communications in U.S. Small and Medium-Sized Business, 2011: Growing Demand for Communication, Collaboration, and Connectivity-But Integration Remains Elusive," IDC examines SMB use of telephony and communications technologies that are part of unified communications. Technology categories examined include VOIP telephony, audio conferencing, Web conferencing and video conferencing. Also examined is unified messaging, which integrates voice, email and messaging platforms across desktops and mobile devices.