Unify’s Strategy to Survive the Post-PBX Apocalypse

Jan 28, 2016

Three years ago, Unify (formerly Siemens Enterprise Communications) was a textbook example of all that was outmoded in the enterprise communications market. A large organization, still trapped in the halcyon days of selling simple PBXs to the masses, trying desperately to tap into a nebulous unified communications market. Three years ago, the company was paying the price of resting on its PBX laurels with double-digit market share losses and losing its already tenuous grip on the North American marketplace.

The Long Road to Transformation: In tech circles, “transformation” is often code for downsizing. In the case of Unify, the very high-profile staff reductions seemed to follow the same pattern. However, a year later, it’s clear that Unify’s transformation was much more than just parting ways with half of its employees. Through the process, CEO Dean Douglas and his executive team created a global services team to replace the myriad of regional teams that had virtual autonomy over portfolio composition and prices, resulting in notable inconsistency from region to region. Unify today selectively outsources some of its field service work to IBM, allowing its own teams to focus on the bigger deals and managing the trickier deployments. In other words, transformation means cutting out the bloat that inevitably exists in old-school PBX companies, and focusing on the work that matters going forward.

A year into the transformation, Unify leadership has made the hard choices, turned the corner on its financial outlook, and is competing in the post-PBX marketplace to defy the pundits that had considered the organization too far gone to save.

Circuit: I admit that I’ve written more than my fair share about Ansible/Circuit, but the impact that Circuit is having within Unify simply cannot be understated. Circuit as a product, bolstered with a new tiered pricing and packaging, including a freemium option, is driving renewed attention by the media and more importantly, channel partners and corporate decision makers.

However, Circuit as a design language is having as great of an impact on the company and its post-PBX existence, even if Circuit the product ultimately fails to become the next big revenue stream for Unify. The investment the company has made to understand and develop the user experience for Circuit is now flowing through all Unify products. The OpenScape platforms have already started down the road of being “Circuit-ized”. The same treatment has now been applied to the company’s contact center experience. In a market where companies focus all of their attention on the next big thing, it is refreshing to see Unify “raise all boats” by applying the lessons learned from Circuit to the rest of its UC and customer interaction portfolio.

Verticals Focused Solutions: In every technology market, most vendors pay lip service to being vertically focused, while ultimately just spinning up marketing material that aligns their existing products to a particular niche. Vertical focus existed in Unify before, but every deployment was treated as a one-off, lacking a standardized or repeatable approach.  A common theme from today's Unify is moving to “productized” solutions, including their vertical-specific portfolio. Purpose-built vertical teams exist to serve very specific vertical needs, such as public safety, healthcare, and utility traders. For example, in support of its next generation 911 solution, Unify hired an actual fire chief that can “talk to talk” in this vertical. Furthermore, a mix of Unify in-house product teams work with third party hardware designers to create purpose-built solutions such as in-room medical kiosks that brings entertainment and communications options to the patient, along with providing secure access to medical records and applications to hospital personnel. In my view, the full embodiment of communications-enabled business processes (CEBP) exists today in Unify’s vertical solutions, but the company will have to make up the ground it has lost over the years to competitors.

Atos: The post-PBX marketplace has seen its share of mergers and acquisitions. The majority of them among traditional PBX vendors have been based on holding or growing market share, for example, the Avaya/Nortel or Mitel/Inter-Tel/Aastra mergers. Others have been to bring cloud capabilities in-house, such as in the case of ShoreTel acquiring M5 and Corvisa. The acquisition of Unify by Atos, announced in October and closed during Unify’s analyst event, is different. I believe it represents things to come in the unified communications industry. Atos is first and foremost an IT services company. On the surface, Unify appears to be an outside of the box acquisition, the synergies become clear when broader market trends are considered. In a post-PBX world, the role of managing business communications within most organizations has moved from discreet telecom teams to another function of IT. At the same time, cloud-based or hosted UC services are rapidly displacing on-premises platforms throughout the world. As Atos plays heavily in both providing IT services and secure cloud-based services, it is a logical next step for Unify’s parent company to push further into organizations with a UC play. Unify’s software-driven products are an excellent fit.

Of course, the Atos acquisition raises almost as many questions as it answers. Despite its transition to software-driven, IP-based UC platforms, Unify still has a significant installed base of legacy platforms and hardware that, like it or not, the two organization will still have to support. Furthermore, while there seems to be little product overlap between Atos and Unify, the synergies between products from Unify (OpenScape or Circuit) and Atos (Canopy, Bull and  Bluekiwi ESN) are less clear. A significant integration and rationalization process will have to be undertaken to best position a combined Atos and Unify portfolio. Most importantly, any cloud-based aspirations that Atos has for Unify’s products raises the potential of competing with the same channel partners that Unify just started to bring back into the fold. Last but certainly not least, the question still remains whether team collaboration solutions like Circuit will really the next big thing in business communications or simply enjoying the hype cycle of fickle customers.

Ultimately, the Unify of 2016 looks very different from the Siemens Enterprise Communications organization of three years ago, even though they are still in the midst of their transformation. It will be imperative that Unify continue to execute on a high level to avoid losing the momentum they currently have. However, with the backing of Atos, Unify looks to be in a position to not only survive, but possibly thrive, in the post-PBX world.

Category : Cloud, Enterprise

Michael Brandenburg


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