Tag Archives: Telepresence

Are Skype about to embark on a unified communications love affair?

Are Skype about to embark on a love affair with UC?

Last month Skype made an announcement that seemed to attract relatively little comment in the unified communications community, but which I thought was really interesting. They hired David Gurle as the new General Manager and Vice President of the Skype for Business unit. No big deal on the surface, but David Gurle has quite the reputation. Gurle spent more than three years running Microsoft’s Real Time Communications business. At Microsoft, he oversaw the development of collaboration products including NetMeeting, Windows Messenger and Office Communications Server. Roll forward a few weeks and Avaya’s Dr Alan Baratz made a slip during their partner conference that some interpreted as an indication of an imminent announcement of an alliance with Skype. All of this prompted me to think about the use of Skype in business and whether they are preparing to make a serious assault on the unified communications market.

Skype certainly have an interesting starting point for any attempt to build a unified communications presence. Although videoconferencing use is expanding rapidly, 79% of respondents to a recent survey by Global IP Solutions said that they currently use a consumer application such as Skype as their primary videoconferencing application. The use of Skype is also rapidly expanding for international traffic and many businesses are becoming more open to using hosted solutions for business applications, rather than insisting on premise-based equipment. Skype also carries many of the features that users would typically expect from a unified communications solution in a user-friendly interface that makes it easy for first time users to pick up straight away.

Having said all of that, Skype attempts to grow in the business market to date have been somewhat patchy. Skype for Asterisk, which was launched in 2008 is probably their most serious effort so far, allowing users of Asterisk-based PBX systems to place, receive and transfer Skype calls from PBX deskphones. Users can make Skype-to-Skype calls and the Skype client software is integrated with the PBX, which enables users to use Skype IM, presence and video conferencing. The main benefits for business are to reduce trunking costs and to give users in small businesses the opportunity to use a simple interface for UC type features. Yet because the market for Asterisk remains fairly small, the growth of Skype use in business from this avenue is likely to be limited.

Skype for SIP was a further attempt to make in-roads into the business market. Launched last year, its main purpose is to provide interoperability between PBXs and the Skype network. At launch, the software supported PBXs from Nortel, Cisco and SIP-based Asterisk switches, but reviews were somewhat mixed – it didn’t support some Skype features and SIP to Skype calling features were also somewhat limited. There have also been many other third-party attempts to build Skype gateways and even a custom built Asterisk platform (FREETALK Connect), which offers great functionality, but limited scalability. So most of the moves so far to take Skype into the business mainstream have actually been quite niche in their approach. Skype penetration in the enterprise has remained the domain of enterprising employees who sidestep conventional IT to install the software, in order to meet a specific need.

This need not be the end of the story though – and it probably isn’t if the Gurle hire is a statement of intent. Skype has much to gain in the business market, not least an even greater share of the estimated 406 billion international minutes of calls made annually. But I suspect that its future is probably not in partnerships with PBX companies and niche open source players – at least not if it wishes to move into the business mainstream. Instead, I would anticipate Skype becoming an even more disruptive technology and following a similar model to Salesforce.com. They could offer business users a combination of the features that many like, with the control that any self-respecting CIO needs, such as the ability to switch users on (and off), control usage and even connect domains for inter-company presence between trusted partners. Now that could be a powerful combination – and an interesting story to follow in the future.

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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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