Tag Archives: Unified Communications

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As an advocate of unified communications since its infancy, this got me wondering: has unified communications now been superseded by developments in social media and mobile devices?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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Skype: Ready for business (Part two…)?

Serious business: UC Expo is becoming Europe's most credible unified communications show.

In a recent post, I speculated as to whether Skype were preparing to make a serious play in the unified communications space, following their appointment of David Gurle, the former main man in Microsoft’s unified communications group, as the head of their Skype for Business team. It looks like we are going to get an answer sooner than many would have anticipated, as Mike England has now confirmed that David Gurle has agreed to be a keynote speaker at UC Expo in London on March 11th.

This is a real coup for Mike and the UC Expo team, who are really beginning to craft what was previously a fairly SME-focused VoIP show into the most serious and credible unified communications event in Europe. More importantly though, the mere fact that David Gurle is taking time out of his busy schedule to address a show explicitly and exclusively dedicated to unified communications appears to be a statement of intent. There is no good reason for him to do that (I believe that he is based in Singapore, so it’s hardly his own back yard…), other than to use the opportunity to lay out Skype’s approach to the unified communications market.

Given the many niche efforts that Skype have made to enter the business market over the past few years, it will be interesting to hear David lay out Skype’s new strategy. In particular, I guess that potential customers, partners and competitors will be interested in three main areas:

  • Whether Skype are really committed to the business market? David obviously isn’t going to say that Skype aren’t up for the fight, but how far does their commitment extend? Buyers will be looking for proof that Skype understand the extent to which business users need developments that differ from the standard consumer offering. API definition has been mentioned as one of the areas where Skype could do more, but business users have far wider (and often more basic) requirements. Are Skype prepared to make that commitment?
  • Will they partner with other vendors or go it alone? Skype has a ready-made possible partner in its corporate cousin Avaya. My view is that Skype probably can’t go it alone at this stage for anything beyond the simplest requirements and smaller customers, but it will be interesting to see to what extent the major vendors are prepared to embrace them, given past experiences in partnerships with Microsoft – who eventually went from partner to rival for many of them… Maybe the answer will involve more Skype-driven cooperations with smaller partners.
  • Will they change their go-to-market approach? Will Skype seek to be a market disruptor and follow a Salesforce.com type model of direct sales (via the web, obviously), or will they look to attract more partners and channels to provide more complex solutions that require integration of Skype into other platforms? How Skype go to market will also significantly influence the kind of service that customers could expect (and whether they are viewed as a friend or foe for the traditional UC channel).

Whether or not David will address these issues is questionable: he has only been in the job a few months. But whatever happens on March 11th, it will be fascinating to follow the movements of yet another high profile potential entrant into the unified communications space.

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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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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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