Tag Archives: Cisco

Is unified communications past its sell-by date?

Have social media and mobile apps left unified communications looking a bit tired?

It’s now been two months since I had a desk phone and a unified communications client. Although I would like to have a desk phone, I must admit that I have only missed these tools on three occasions:

  1. When making calls to subsidiaries abroad – using cellular networks for international calling is still outrageously expensive.
  2. When I have needed to make conference calls with members of my team. Although the iPhone has limited (but user friendly) facilities for conferencing, the audio quality just doesn’t do the job a dedicated conferencing unit can.
  3. When doing a radio interview, where I needed guaranteed call quality.

As an advocate of unified communications since its infancy, this got me wondering: has unified communications now been superseded by developments in social media and mobile devices? Is unified communications now past its use-by date?

The last outposts of classic unified communications…

I started by thinking about applications in which unified communications in its purest sense continues to deliver significant measurable business value for organizations that adopt UC solutions:

  • Communications-Enabled Business Processes in contact centers: Agents can complete tasks quicker using unified communications and presence technology, delivering a direct and measurable return on investment. Greater throughput = fewer agents = better customer satisfaction: what’s not to like in that equation for the average business?
  • Road warriors: The benefit for road warriors of unified communications is easy to see. I can ‘see’ who’s available, even when I’m not in the office. It can also help reduce costs, by routing international calls through the company network or enabling me to use a soft client, rather than roaming at expensive rates using my mobile device.
  • For global businesses: For companies with international workforces, unified communication can have a massive benefit. Connecting workforces more effectively and enabling them to collaborate directly with one another accelerates decision making and powers cost cutting measures such as off-shoring and reduced business travel for internal meetings.

Don’t believe the hype

The problem for unified communications vendors is that the benefits I have outlined mirror their own organizations. Industry consolidation resulted in geographically dispersed teams that demand business travel and international communication to keep the plates spinning. This prejudices some vendors’ view of the market: they start to believe their own marketing hype and that the market for these applications is larger than it really is. Unfortunately for them, many of their potential customers face very different and more mundane communications challenges.

These customers aren’t worried about presence and a unified portal – many of them run their business using mobile handsets, simple PBXs, social media, Skype and Google Voice. What they are worried about is cost, scalability and flexibility for the future. They don’t see the potential issues of using consumer applications such as Skype – they just flinch when they see the huge roaming bills, or need to do a video call now and again and see a simple solution to those problems. As a result, many use elements of unified communications to help them address these challenges, such as single number services, video-calling and instant messaging. They just don’t call it unified communications – and don’t recognize its value as such.

Not dead, just different

So I don’t believe that unified communications is past its sell-by date – in many ways it is more relevant than ever – but old school definitions of UC are. Unified communications is no longer about managing a desk phone, mobile, Windows PC and many other devices. The smart phone has made that view redundant for all except the power users in boardrooms and hotels. Instead, it is evolving into skinny applications for low-end users and specialist applications for power users, mixed with a dose of social media, a splash of video and a few web-based collaboration tools. The unifying element comes in binding these elements together securely and in a way that controls costs.

If vendors embrace the more holistic eco-system in which unified communications now exists, then they will deliver great value to customers and thrive once more. They’ll sell fewer devices, but those they do sell will be of higher value, such as videoconferencing units and financial trading desktops. They won’t sell many high-powered UC desktop clients, but they could sell applications for mobile devices – and the presence and call control servers that will power them. And they won’t sell as many traditional maintenance services, but they could sell plenty of integration services.

The question is whether they have the agility, resources, skills and marketing muscle to adapt quickly enough to this new world, or whether new players will fill the void.

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Unified Communications: Why they’re all ‘Open’ now…

Polycom, Cisco, Avaya… It seems that everywhere you turn these days, unified communications vendors are declaring their love for all things open and standards based. This should be a moment for celebration. At this point, unified communications customers are supposed to be filled with a warm happy feeling that vendors all over the world are joining hands and working together in our best interests.  Yet in virtually all cases, it seems to me that the sudden conversion to the road to openness doesn’t always necessarily translate into an easier life for customers implementing unified communications: the devil is very much in the detail.

I know a thing or two about being ‘open’. I was one of the core team that decided on ‘Open Communications’ as Siemens Enterprise Communications’ positioning back in 2006. Our reasons for choosing that positioning were transparent. We saw a changing market, with new entrants from the software sector, service providers and the data market. We believed that everyone had some area of expertise, but nobody did everything brilliantly – including us. Microsoft owned the desktop in many companies, Cisco the data. PBX vendors understood voice and sometimes mobility, but were still learning about software. The unified communications market was also becoming increasingly entwined with the the applications space.

There seemed to be space in the market for an open neutral player that would work with a range of partners to bring together the best solutions for customers to get them to a unified communications environment built around their business needs, rather than what we wanted to sell them. We also believed strongly that we would need to focus on open standards, such as SIP (it helped that we had HiPath 8000, which was the only carrier grade SIP softswitch on the market at the time) in order to foster this culture of openness and interoperability.

This path was fraught with difficulty: Siemens had its fair share of proprietary platforms, not least the HiPath 4000 (which was the strongest product line at the time and remains Siemens’ biggest seller) and a proprietary culture. But we stuck with it and, over the course of three years we made some progress. We launched the OpenScape UC Server in 2007 and saw a genuine commitment and cultural change in the organization to build on standards-based platforms and work on partnerships across the industry. You can still see the impact that this change had on Siemens today, when they launch Beta Programs and social media integration for OpenScape – the philosophy really penetrated the company, even if it took a few years…

If I look around today, it seems that Siemens won the intellectual battle – at least at face value. Avaya launched Aura and declared themselves the champions of that open standards favourite, the SIP protocol. Polycom launched the Open Collaboration Network. Even Cisco have now decided that “that competition and industry expansion is best fostered through open standards and interoperability”, which is a long way from their position a few years ago. But I would argue that many of those decisions have been based on the need to integrate new acquisitions or being unable to offer a complete suite of unified communications solutions, rather than a ground-up commitment to open standards in the interest of customers.

Of course there is an argument in favour of being closed. Look at Apple. Working their own standards and building a walled garden enabled them to build the most successful music retailer on the planet. Their closed eco-system also allowed them to innovate in ways that Nokia, Microsoft and Co could only have dreamed of. There is a solid basis for the view that standards bodies stifle innovation and reduce inter-working to the lowest common denominator. But, like telephony before it, unified communications needs guaranteed interoperability if businesses are to derive maximum benefit and return on investment from the technology. It needs standards to enable companies to work together regardless of which vendor they bought their equipment from. I can see three key areas in which vendors could work together to deliver more value to customers than seems possible today:

  1. HD video interoperability. I know that progress has been made in this area (not least the Polycom-Cisco-Lifesize announcement last year), but wouldn’t it be fantastic if you could at least guarantee that you could make an inter-organization HD videoconferencing call out-of-the-box, without lengthy integration processes or long testing periods? The kit certainly costs enough and this kind of functionality should be a given today – and not just in a vendor-controlled demo environment.
  2. Presence engines. Again, the ability to integrate presence from all of the leading engines into unified communications clients should just be a fact. I’d also like to see the Holy Grail of presence: to offer secure federated presence, whereby I can choose which partners I trust and wish to share my status with, regardless of which organisation they belong to.
  3. Desktop clients and soft clients. It seems ridiculous that in 2010 any use of desktop phones on PBXs from third-party vendors is limited to the most basic of SIP call control functions. Maybe this area will never change now, given the expected decline in sales of desktop phone and the growth of mobile devices as alternative PBX extensions and WiFi clients.

I’m sure you can think of other areas – this is just my starter for ten. The industry seems to be taking steps in the right direction, albeit slowly. Yet all vendors have to make commercial decisions based on defending their own self interest, so I have to wonder whether vendors will really commit to giving customers what they want: the interoperability that would make unified communications truly unified and truly easy to adopt…

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VoiceCon Orlando: Is anyone going to knock our socks off?

VoiceCon's coming - again! (Image by Alex Dunne, used under Creative Commons licence)

I can hardly believe that I’m writing this, but VoiceCon Orlando is just around the corner – again! From March 22nd to 25th, the great and the good of unified communications will gather in the Gaylord Palms hotel (still love that name – it sounds like it should be a line in a Barry Manilow track!) to discuss the latest developments in unified communications and (hopefully) be wowed by the incredible keynotes. VoiceCon Orlando has developed into an interesting show over the past few years – it’s probably the closest thing the UC market has to a flagship show. The presentations often give a clear view of where the market is heading, even if some of the demonstrations are not quite ready for primetime yet.

VoiceCon Orlando in 2009 was dominated by the situation at Nortel and their customers’ concerns about the long-term viability of solutions that had served them well for years, Avaya announcing Aura and Microsoft finally (doing what we’d all been waiting for: taking the gloves off towards the PBX vendors and throwing down the gauntlet to the rest of the UC market. Having looked at this year’s keynotes, all the usual suspects are there: Avaya’s Kevin Kennedy, Cisco’s Tony Bates, IBM Software Group’s Alistair Rennie, Microsoft’s Gurdeep Singh Pall and Siemens’ Mark Straton (who last year did arguably the most original keynote of 2009, when he demonstrated Twitter integration into OpenScape at VoiceCon San Francisco). The question is: will any of them present anything that will really excite us and, if so, who?

Here are some of the things that I will be hoping to see in this year’s keynotes:

  • How far Microsoft have progressed in really providing a scalable unified communications solution and how they will deal with the mobility issue, given that Windows Mobile seems to be going nowhere, fast?
  • How are vendors going to deal with the consumerisation of IT? The Apple iPhone is now booming as a business device (as I observed again today on my way into London), Skype’s international minutes are exploding and Twitter use continues to climate in the business environment. I want to see vendors recognise this and deliver applications that will take unified communications into a mainstream business context. This means focusing on ease of use to drive adoption! A recent announcement by Cisco shows that they are getting it – let’s hope others follow at VoiceCon.
  • Solutions to integrate social media response and monitoring into the contact center. Siemens (and in particular Paul Maddison) have some interesting thoughts in this area – it would be great to see them build on their innovative integration of Twitter into OpenScape by providing some applications for customer service that would have a real return on investment for many organizations.

Above all else though, I will be following this year’s VoiceCon coverage and hoping to be wowed: it’s time for unified communications vendors to move on the debate from the Aura’s, incremental upgrades and Nortel survival debates of the past few years. What I’d love to see is innovation, real-life implementation and compelling reasons to invest in unified communications for CIOs around the World.

Update: Since I wrote this post, Dave Michels sent a nice tweet as his VoiceCon wish: that all of the executives demo their ‘intuitive’ unified communications applications themselves, rather than getting junior staff members to do it for them. I can only second this – when did you ever see Steve Jobs sub-contract his demonstrations?

This brought me on to another VoiceCon wish of my own: if executives are going to spend their entire keynote talking up the value of social media integration and its business value within a unified communications context (and let’s face it: at least one keynote is bound to be full of this), then they should at least use the technology that they are talking about – and only tweeting two test tweets six months ago definitely does not count! Anyway, enough from me: what’s your VoiceCon wish?

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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.

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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.

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