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The History of Unified Communications: From the 1800s to Present Day

Follow the unified communications from its earliest predecessors, like the telegraph, through major milestones, like PBX, IVR, VoIP, SIP and AI, to the present day.
Unified communications has become an important part of our everyday business lives, affecting the way we conduct business or simply communicate with each other across devices. As a whole, the term unified communications (UC) refers to the system in which different methods of communication, from email to video, are integrated (see more detailed definitions of unified communications here). Although UC as we know it didn’t come about until the 80s and 90s, a look at its history demonstrates just how far communications technologies have come.




The origins of UC can be traced back to the days of the telegraph. As one of the first transmitters of information, the telegraph laid the groundwork for the communications technologies that would eventually evolve into what we know them as today.




This is the year that saw two inventors – Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray – file a patent for similar devices within months of each other. The contested device was, of course, the telephone, and although the US Patent Office would eventually award the patent to Bell, the decision (and its surrounding controversy) remains a point of contention among historians today.


Late 1800s-1950s


After the invention of the telephone, switchboards were used to route calls. These were the precursors to the private branch exchange (PBX). Switchboard operators would answer phone calls, figure out who the person on the line was seeking, and then plug the phone cord in the right jack, connecting the two parties.




In the 1960s, businesses realized they could save money by hiring their own private switchboard operators to handle calls internally. Voilà! The PBX was born.




Then in the 70s, interactive voice response (IVR) came about. IVR transformed call routing by automatizing the process without the need of a human operator. This automation made call routing not only more efficient, but cheaper. Businesses eventually moved to this automated system, and manual switchboards became a thing of the past. However, callers were then without anyone on the other end of the line to assure them that their call was being processed. This gave rise to the dial-tone, which was almost universal by the end of this period.




PBX systems were found in businesses everywhere, and they began to improve as features like hold music and call transfer capabilities were added.

The world of UC began to take shape as different technologies began to merge, particularly voicemail (introduced in the United States in 1980 by Televoice International) and IVR. In 1985, a company called VMX offered an email reader on their voicemail system, providing a good example of how communications began to become unified across platforms. During the latter half of the 90s, companies sought to integrate voicemail and email on cellphones, office phones, and computers with the idea of having a unified messaging system.

Though videoconferencing was introduced at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, advancements in it weren’t really made until the 80s and 90s, when systems became more affordable and internet protocol (IP) technology enabled video collaboration via desktop.




Global SchoolNet launched a project on its website,, where Macintosh users could join audio/video conferences over the internet. This project made collaboration more possible for businesses.




This year brought the design of session initiated protocol (SIP). This is a protocol that tells the end points and the intermediate systems how to set up a virtual session between two or multiple end points. It enables the creation and deployment of feature-rich services that go far beyond simple IP telephony phone calls, including multimedia/video, instant messaging, web integration, and more. SIP is just a way for your communication systems to talk to each other and relay voice, video, IM and other data over an IP based network. The protocol was standardized in 1999.




Voice over internet protocol (VoIP) started gaining popularity. Simply put, VoIP is phone service over the internet. As more and more companies began moving their systems to IP networks, telecommunications leaders became aware of the shift from traditional PBX systems towards UC as we are familiar with it today.




The rise of instant messaging and chat begins, thanks to the help of emerging technologies like the smartphone. The decline of voicemail commences, and in 2015 JPMorgan eliminates voicemail from their business, as reported by CNBC.

At the same time, the increasing prominence of the cloud and its ability to be a hosted, as opposed to an on-premises, solution, offers UC scalability and versatility. Therefore, unified communications as a service (UCaaS) has grown during the decade.

In 2011, Mitel announced that it would integrate its virtualized Unified Communicator® (UC) Advanced client software with VMware View™ 5, enabling Mitel and VMware to deliver soft phone and mobile device integration into a desktop virtualization environment. This dramatically extended the power of desktop virtualization, and enabled a user's voice solution and UC applications to be deployed together as a single unified solution in a virtual desktop environment. By doing so, IT departments significantly reduced costs while extending their desktop and mobile environment to anywhere a user has an internet connection.

Today, UC may consist of voice, messaging, conferencing, mobility, and video. All of those are now standard integrations in our day-to-day business functions.


Through the years, UC has proven itself as a versatile and ever-changing concept, and it will be exciting to see it evolve further, especially as artificial intelligence begins to make its way into the communications world.

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