David Tebbutt, SmallBizPod Blog

Ran into a company recently which has done a rather nice ‘unified communications’ suite and you can have it for free. What’s the catch? It displays adverts to the users. The examples on the website look pretty discreet, so you might find it acceptable.

Alternatively, you can buy the software or pay a per user annual fee and avoid the advertisements altogether. The company’s name is Unison. Yep, just like the trade union.

I tried the software out today, with a colleague. And it looked very good indeed. Very elegant, very smooth and responsive. It appeared very similar to Microsoft Outlook but it adds instant messaging, presence and telephony to the standard elements of email, calendar and directory. It seems not to have an equivalent of Microsoft ‘tasks’. (Which I don’t use, so didn’t realise it was missing until I checked.)

Unusually these days, the software is provided not ‘as a service’ (coming next year, apparently) but as something you install on your local computers. If you’re on the ad-supported version, you install an ad-server and the unified communications server. Then each user has their own desktop application with all the functions on tap. Instant messages are over on the right, with a status light to show which users are online or missing. At the bottom left is a ‘calls’ tab which shows you a history of calls and provides facilities like dial, record, forward, park and so on.

I tried reaching out to some of the staff that were supposed to be present, according to their IM status. It was clear that they weren’t there when I got weird messages back. Try this for size:

Me: 15/12/2008 09:18:42:
Hi Deepak. I’m in the demo’ – can’t see any ads. Does that mean the demo is the paid version?

Deepak Chandra: 15/12/2008 09:18:42:
Are you saying no just to be negative?

You can see from the timings that that was an autoresponse. And one not designed to engender goodwill.

When my colleague got her account, we had a lot of sensible conversations about the product which we fundamentally liked. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make phone calls, even internal ones, which was a shame. I think it was something to do with the test server being in America. Unfortunately I couldn’t reach the Americans: voicemail until after 9:40am their time. So I just have to speculate. Judging from the quality of the software generally, I’d guess that it would work fine on a proper installation.

Looking at the small print for the sponsored version, I got the impression that the company, or maybe the ad-server, could grab whatever information it liked from your emails, IMs, phone calls and suchlike in order to deliver the most relevant ads to you. Here’s the phrase that had me a bit worried:

“You hereby irrevocably and unconditionally grant Unison a nonexclusive, worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free license to access, edit, modify, adapt, translate, exhibit, publish, transmit, participate in the transfer of, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, display, and otherwise use Licensee Content as necessary to provide Software and Advertising Content to you and/or your end users pursuant to this Agreement under a Sponsor-Supported License.”

It says that this is subject to the conditions in its Privacy Statement, which can be revised at any time. This is the relevant section:

“Unison does not, however, collect or store any personally identifiable information in connection with our sponsor-supported licenses. Unison provides our sponsors only with aggregated data that does not identify specific companies or individuals in any way. Ads are served through Unison based only on abstractions of original content (such as isolated keywords). If these abstractions were somehow intercepted, it would not be possible to reconstruct the original content of emails and other messages. Unison does not own or store a copy of your original content.”

If you’re getting something for ‘nothing’, it clearly pays to read the small print before committing yourself.

The company has no plans to extend the advertising beyond the users of the system. Emails go out unsullied and it doesn’t intend to add advertisements to telephone calls or IMs. It needs to keep the goodwill of its customers, although if the ‘free’ version doesn’t deliver revenues, will Unison shrug its shoulders or try and find ways to up the revenue? No-one knows.

If you have a tame techie on the premises you have little to lose by trying this system out. The company reckons it takes half an hour to get the server up and running. If you like what you see, you have the chance not only to make the user’s communications faster and easier, you can also use the server as a replacement for your PBX switchboard system. You might have to fork out a bit for adapters for your conventional system though.

It’s refreshing to see someone come into the market without a need to protect its historical business (software or telephony). It means they don’t have to compromise. It is using the familiarity of the Outlook interface and a lower cost to entice people to take a look. The risk of looking is low. One to keep on the shortlist if you’re planning to change.

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