Monthly Archives: January 2010

Unified Communications: The Case for Simplicity. Part One…

James preferred this to his grimy old deskphone. Can't think why...

I noticed a tweet earlier this week from an old colleague of mine, Rudi Hamann from Siemens Enterprise Communications. The tweet went like this:

Why do you think SMBs do not recognise the immediate value of unified communication and presence?

Having now worked in a rapidly expanding medium-sized business for a month, I think that I can answer his question.

My company should be a perfect customer for unified communications: we are a multi-site business with complex operations. We are expanding rapidly internationally. Yet – although we have all of the component parts – we don’t use a unified communications solution right now. Why? Because the benefits of unified communications are not being clearly and simply articulated to customers like us – and certainly not clearly enough to displace the other IT challenges that we are tackling in our list of priorities. I have been thinking about this and believe that there are three main areas, where vendors are missing a trick:

  1. Firstly, in fast-growing companies like ours, line-of-business managers have a significant influence on the IT strategy. Yet there are very few vendors out there that invest the resources to articulate the real value of unified communications in a coherent, jargon-free way. Ironically, Rudi actually was part of a good attempt at doing this when Siemens launched HiPath OpenOffice (now OpenScape Office) in 2007. That solution covered many of the needs of growing businesses: unified messaging, presence, mobility and Outlook integration. If more line-of-business managers understood the value of unified communications, then this would almost certainly raise it up their priority list.
  2. The consumerization of IT has a massive influence. We know that we need to communicate but tools such as IM, Skype, the Apple iPhone and various other smartphones help us meet that need. They’re not perfect, but they are simple, consumer-focused tools that are easy to understand. So these are the tools that many businesses use to fill needs that could be covered by UC solutions. I am not arguing that this is right: there are security issues, management challenges and significant costs – but end users don’t consider such issues. Gartner recently said that the consumerization of  IT will be a key trend over the next decade. If they are right, then unified communications vendors need good arguments as to why their solutions offer real value to business that business can’t get elsewhere.
  3. Last, but definitely not least, ease-of-use, installation and management are all important factors in growing businesses. We expect unified communications applications to be easy to install, reliable and for them to work seamlessly with the applications and devices that we already use. Not the complicated proprietary stuff, but at least the standards that we use every day, such as Microsoft Office, Outlook, Blackberry and iPhone. And when I say integration, I mean simple out-of-the-box integration – not integration requiring consultancy or professional services.

At the heart of all of these issues is one recurring theme: simplicity. I believe that there is a real craving for simplicity in business IT right now. As consumers, we are all spoilt by companies such as Apple, Sky and Google articulating their propositions very clearly and making their solutions so easy and intuitive that we don’t need manuals to work out how to use them – we just instinctively know. Unified communications has a massive dependency on user adoption in order to ensure the return on investment of solutions. Yet many vendors have still to realise that communicating their propositions in a straightforward manner and making them unbelievably easy to use is key to users desiring and adopting them. Until that happens, the value of unified communications will bypass many of the influencers in the IT decision making process…

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Polycom and Siemens Enterprise Communications. Old flames reunited in common sense move.

Siemens now have a clearer video strategy after recent changes at LifeSize and Tandberg

On a pretty quiet week for unified communications, Siemens Enterprise Communications and Polycom announced the formation of a global Unified Communications Partnership. In the tech world this kind of union is often accompanied by grandiose statements about sharing a common vision, joint product development and other marketing hyperbole. But reading the releases and the accompanying interviews on this announcement, you didn’t really get that feeling. There was a good reason for this: both sides of this marriage know that this is a common sense commercial relationship in the face of a rapidly changing videoconferencing landscape. The partnership is not Earth-shattering, but it gives both sides some much needed stability in their partner eco-systems.

Polycom benefit from a formal commitment from Siemens, who took them to the prom for years, before flirting with an attractive young OEM called Lifesize and pursuing a serious relationship with Tandberg. No one will say it our loud for fear of upsetting other partners and existing pipeline, but they’ll probably be SEN Group’s video partner of choice going forward. As a result, they get a new alliance partner with a loyal customer base to sell to, at a time when they’ve lost two partners to market consolidation: Nortel has been absorbed into Avaya and Cisco will obviously now focus their love on Tandberg, leaving Polycom to fend for themselves.

Siemens also now have a clear way forward after a few telepresence misfires. Despite talk of an open approach to video strategy, the reality is that Polycom is now by far the most attractive strategic option in Siemens’ video portfolio and a salesforce favourite. Even after the Lifesize OEM deal, Siemens sales reps continued to have a soft spot for Polycom solutions, because their customers trusted the technology. I doubt we will see many customers falling over themselves to buy Tandberg from SEN Group now either, or Siemens going the extra mile to sell it.

There isn’t too much to get excited about at this stage, but there are two interesting points. Firstly, there is mention of full integration of video into OpenScape unified communications. There was talk of this when the Lifesize partnership was announced a few years ago, but it never really got off the ground – the low margins meant that selling rebadged video kit wasn’t a particularly attractive option, so neither did the integration. I hope that this is now delivered: lack of high quality desktop video integration into unified communications clients has been a disappointment and I believe that there is a market for customers that need video, but neither want the complexity of a full telepresence suite nor the challenges of managing Skype securely in the enterprise. Following recent interoperability announcements from Polycom Tandberg and LifeSize, this may result in some movement on ease-of-use in UC video. Building on efforts to make OpenScape more channel-friendly will be key to this, as channel-driven volume will be needed to ensure payback for the integration work.

The other area of interest is in Siemens creating OpenScale services for managed video. Siemens has a fantastic global managed services customer base in telephony and has been busy rolling out OpenScape Voice to many of those clients. Extending this with some easy-to-use video  and commercially attractive services could add value to customers, Polycom and Siemens alike.

This agreement isn’t without risks for both sides, but these are the same risks that have been attached to every video partnership in recent years: that mergers and acquisitions activity takes on or the other partner off the table. This risk is probably greater to Siemens, who would be left with few remaining options on video, other than to work with a key competitor. But it’s hard to plan a strategy on the ifs, buts and maybes of the current M&A climate, so right now this partnership looks like a smart move for both parties.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

One for the meat and potatoes lovers… Avaya announces combined Avaya-Nortel Roadmap

Avaya customers (of which my company is one, just to declare my interests up front) and Nortel customers got to see Avaya’s much-heralded combined Avaya-Nortel roadmap for the first time on a webinar yesterday. I won’t do the full rundown of which products are for the chop and which will live a full and healthy life, as Allen Sulkin and Sheila McGee Smith have done a very nice job of summarising the key points over at Nojitter.com.

What did strike me when reading through the detail, was how little the marketing messaging has moved on over the past two years. In 2008 I led the communications campaign to launch OpenScape UC Server at Siemens. As I watched the tweets come in today from Elka Popova, Steff Watson and Sheila, I would not have blinked if you had told me that they were tweeting at the 2008 Siemens’ analyst roadshow presentation – the key messages were that similar:

  • Nortel customer can upgrade at their own pace using Aura: that’s like the Siemens OpenPath migration message.
  • Avaya Aura: still very similar to the OpenScape UC Server message from 2008.
  • Contact centers will be SOA-based: At Siemens we said this almost two years ago.

Before I’m accused of pro-Siemens bias (for the record: I know longer have any connection to them), I can understand why Avaya took a cautious approach. They probably saw this as a meat and potatoes announcement for a crowd that likes meat and potatoes – and who were primarily concerned with how long they would have their current solutions before they were chopped from a streamlined Avaya portfolio. Nonetheless, it did strike me that this was a missed marketing opportunity.

This man was not seen at Avaya's roadmap launch...

As I read the coverage though, I wondered what a sprinkle of Steve Jobs style magic could have achieved. This was a large and fairly friendly audience – people who have a vested interest in seeing Avaya succeed. They could have set out an exciting vision and made some new announcements. Maybe they could have announced full integration of Skype into Aura? Or some new mobile clients? Perhaps a snazzy new interface for businesses to integrate social media and UC with corporate security controls? Instead of that, there were calming statements on how aligned the technical vision of the Avaya and Nortel sides had been (unsurprising – most PBX vendors have a similar view of the market) and some end-of-life announcements – nothing to really blow your mind.

It’s hard not to focus on handling existing customers’ sensitivities in the middle of such a major merger. But the market will not wait – and the competition in the UC market is relentless, as Cisco, Siemens and others are showing. I hope that Avaya now go on to prove to customers that they remain leading UC innovators, who will still be relevant to both Nortel and Avaya customers for the next ten years.

What do you think? Am I being too critical? Or do you like a bit of Apple-style bling served up with your unified communications?

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Cisco flashes their UC marketing muscle. Again…

You may have noticed this week that Cisco announced $10m in support for a telemedicine pilot in California. If you haven’t seen the news, then there’s a Network World piece about it here.

I find this announcement really fascinating. The program itself is interesting: it’s taking what many vendors have promised in healthcare for years and putting some serious money behind it to really make it happen. Clearly Mr Chambers is no fool: he knows that if he can prove advanced telemedicine technology in such a visible market, then it will become a lot easier to sell it elsewhere…

What makes it more interesting, though, is that it is yet another piece of Cisco’s momentum in unified communications and collaboration technologies. Cisco continues to throw serious money at telepresence. Whereas other UC vendors would be looking at $10m as a major chunk of their marketing budget, for Cisco this is a single pilot. I’m not saying that they don’t view it as serious expenditure – they clearly do – but this is just one vertical market. I cannot imagine any other UC vendor investing even a fraction of that budget into a single vertical market in this way.

This level of investment comes at a time when most UC vendors have slashed marketing budgets. As they have done this, Cisco have invested in UC-relevant M&A activity, marketing programs and alliances, such as their successful alliance with BT. They are proving the golden rule: that cash is king in a recession. They may have been hurting like every other vendor, but the strategic moves that they have made have been changing the playing field at a time when many of the other vendors have been competing to stay on the old one.

Name me another UC vendor that could pull this off...

The other reason that this announcement was big news, was that it yet again underlined Cisco’s ability to pull in the big names to put some marketing bling behind its technology. I’m sure that other vendors could have got a quote from Governor Schwarzenegger. But I can’t think of one that would have had the audacity to pull off having him speak at their press launch. Even Microsoft only throws crumbs onto the enterprise communications table. UC is not a core market for them even now, which is why we all get excited when Steve Ballmer gives a UC press conference – it’s such a rarity.

Cisco continues to be the only vendor truly able to throw sufficient marketing muscle behind unified communications technology to bring it close to the mainstream. Clearly other vendors will not be able to compete on the same terms (either in marketing or M&A terms – I don’t count the Avaya-Nortel combo yet, as that gives scale, but little evidence of new innovation in marketing), so it will be interesting to see how they try and change their own approach to keep on Cisco’s coat tails.

Tagged , , , , ,