Tag Archives: OpenScape

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As an advocate of unified communications since its infancy, this got me wondering: has unified communications now been superseded by developments in social media and mobile devices?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

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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?

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