Unified Communications is a popular buzzword these days. UC is shorthand for a set of increasingly converging real-time communications, and it goes beyond simply voice and video to pretty much every way you can communicate with your eyes and ears on a screen. Specifically, Unified Communications includes business tools like screen sharing and conference calls with the many text-based methods (text, email, IM) and brings them under one umbrella. It covers both turn-based and real-time communication, and strives to be device-agnostic.
We wanted to go beyond the hype and find out what's happening in the field of UC. To do so, we rounded up seven top authorities in the field of VoIP and cloud communication. They were gracious enough to join us and answer our questions for us.
Our panel discussion focused on the last twelve months and the next twelve to come. We covered the major trends we've observed, both in the technology itself and in the way we use it.
Join me in welcoming our panelists:
Jon is Principal of J Arnold & Associates
, an independent IP communications analyst and consulting agency. Jon is a noted public speaker and can be seen giving speeches at industry events and private engagements. He is a frequent contributor to UCStrategies, Ziff Davis, and TMCNet.
Elka is the North American Program Research Director at Frost & Sullivan. She has an extensive background in market analysis, with a focus on enterprise telephony, UCC, and SaaS. Her passion is hosted/cloud communications. Her work can be seen on the Frost & Sullivan blog Digital Transformation
Evan is a B2B marketing wizard, with 20+ years of experience working in biz/dev for big names in Unified Communications. If you can pry him away from his social media, Evan is happy to lend his expertise to help hot tech startups grow. He is on the advisory position at HookFlash, and has another advisory position at Penguin Strategies.
Sheila has spent 30 years in the communications industry, including 12 years with the PELORUS Group before founding McGee-Smith Analytic. McGee-Smith works with companies ranging from fresh startups to the Fortune 100. As the president & analyst of McGee-Smith Analytics, she can frequently be seen at industry events and conferences.
Dave has 20 years of experience in research and analysis in the telecommunications arena. He is a frequent contributor on his own blog TalkingPointz.com
, NoJitter.com, and UCStrategies.com. Dave oversees the Innovation Showcase at the industry trade show Enterprise Connect.
Irwin is VP and Service Director at Nemertes Research, where he manages research projects, develops cost models, conducts seminars and advises clients how to best navigate the dynamic telecommunications landscape.
Art was an early pioneer in online communication, going all the way back to the 1970s when he began his career with the RAND Corporation. He helped develop one of the first automated call centers that also offered voice messaging services at Delpi Communications. Art spent the last two decades as a web columnist, independant contributor, and advisor
What would you say was a major UC development in the past year?
Social business and persistent collaboration. These words don’t go together that easily, but most UC vendors have been moving to the PaaS model, where collaboration is framed as a persistent experience, primarily for internal use. The leading examples would be Spark from Cisco and Circuit from Unify, and others are on the way. These are natural responses, given the rise of pure plays like Slack and Fuze, not to mention the possibilities posed by the likes of Twilio and Facebook that provide massive social communities looking for new ways to engage. Business models have yet to emerge, so it’s not clear if these strains of UC can be effectively monetized, but for now, they speak to a core need for easy-to-use collaboration platforms, especially for always-on, mobile workers.
The industry is at an interesting phase, whereby technology development is faster than ever, but it is very hard to identify one trend, solution or event that is bound to have a groundbreaking impact on the market in the future. UC portfolio rationalization, application license bundling and compelling subscription-based pricing models, the move to the cloud, etc.—these are all ongoing trends that started a few years back and will continue to transform the marketplace going forward. Some may say that Microsoft’s moves in the UC space are having the largest effect on technology development and vendor positioning. Indeed, Lync, aka Skype for Business has established itself as a viable substitute for other premises-based UC solutions. Microsoft also appears committed to turn Skype for Business Online into a compelling cloud UC offering, but the jury is still out on this. Probably the most significant development that marked the UC industry in 2014 and early 2015 was the launch of several cloud-based team collaboration products by more “traditional” UC vendors—i.e., Cisco Spark, Interactive Intelligence PureCloud suite of UC and contact center applications, and Unify Circuit. It will be curious to see how much success these solutions will find throughout the rest of this year and in the years to come.
The rise of WebRTC and ORTC has opened the door of real time communications to an entire universe of application developers, and we have already seen early WebRTC apps, with an explosion of opportunity ahead of us. The fact that Google and Microsoft have united on a set of standards presents a unique opportunity for developers to embrace real time communications in their web and mobile applications in a way that SIP never managed to do. A tidal wave of innovation will follow.
The general availability release of a new wave of collaboration tools from major vendors was significant in the last 12 months. I would put Cisco Spark, Unify Circuit and Interactive Intelligence Collaborate in this category. With their emphasis on a “new way to work,” they have the promise of dramatically changing how teams work together and how projects are done.
Messaging first collaboration tools such as Cisco Spark, Unify Circuit, and ININ Collaborate are by far the most significant development in enterprise communications. These tools are very strategic and offer more assistance with workflow and collaboration than UC. I am watching about a dozen of these messaging first solutions and believe they will significantly disrupt how the enterprise communicates and collaborates.
I think the biggest development we've seen in our research is move by enterprises to consolidate their UC platforms onto a single primary vendor. Around 78% of companies in the latest Nemertes UC&C Benchmark were either evaluating such a consolidation, or already beginning to consolidate. The primary drivers are simplifying the user experience, reducing licensing cost, and eliminating integration headaches.
Increased shift to cloud-based UCaaS, ongoing “conversational” communications across all modes of contact. Also, increased capabilities for device-independent, online mobile apps to be CEBP-enabled.
What will be a game changer in the UC landscape for businesses in the next 12 months?
Mobility has long been the missing link to make UC ubiquitous, and it looks like that gap is being bridged now. Anything new in this space is mobile-centric, and vendors are getting closer to making the mobile experience good enough for everyday use. While smartphone innovation has probably peaked, devices continue getting bigger, reflecting an ongoing shift from voice to video and text as the main sources of utility. Complementing this is the rise of phablets, which will bring end users even deeper into an environment that will make UC a core productivity tool.
I honestly do not believe that there will be any game-changers for business users in the next 12 months. Various solutions (e.g., Skype for Business or team collaboration suites) and deployment models (e.g., cloud) will provide new options for businesses looking to update and upgrade their communications capabilities, but nothing is likely to dramatically impact the user experience. Perhaps greater mobile enablement—i.e., more pervasive delivery of voice and UC apps on mobile devices—is the only trend that will make a sizeable difference in business users’ lives. Especially in the cloud communications space soft clients of various sorts—PC-based and mobile ones—are increasingly becoming part of standard services bundles.
I anticipate WebRTC being baked into many more consumer applications - from dating and gaming apps to B2B apps for ecommerce, contact centers et al. Real time Video engagement will be available as a option from several key ecommerce sites inc Amazon, Ebay, others.
For consumers? Whatever Apple releases. For the enterprise, it is messaging first collaboration tools. About half of the UC industry gets this. The other half believes there's no difference from UC, and they are mistaken. The big difference is UC lies on the periphery of workflow and messaging first collaboration tools don't.
The broadening of UC into a growing array of applications. Today most companies use UC platforms from traditional telephony vendors (Avaya, Cisco, Mitel, NEC, ShoreTel, etc), cloud providers (8x8, Ring Central, etc.) or from traditional IM vendors (e.g. IBM, Microsoft). However WebRTC is enabling any collaboration application vendor to provide voice, video, and screen sharing from within any app. So a company using a team chat app like Slack or HipChat could potentially use it for voice/video, meaning that companies may no longer have a single UC platform, but rather UC features available to users across a variety of apps.
Mobile contact flexibility that will start with messaging and chat prior to escalating to real-time voice or video connections.
What will be a game changer in the UC landscape for vendors in the next 12 months?
The set of vendors that dominate UC in the U.S. will likely remain in place, namely Cisco, Avaya, MSFT, Mitel, ShoreTel and NEC. Many others play in this space in different ways, but given how 2014 unfolded, this grouping will not likely change much. What could change, however, is the emergence of external players that can become a force by virtue of their dominance in either cloud or business software, namely Google, Amazon, IBM and SAP. As UC evolves away from its traditional roots in telephony, there is more room for disrupters from even further afield such as Apple or Facebook. These types of competitive threats have nothing to do with voice, and everything to do with engaging large communities with tools that are easy and fun to use.
Cloud UC and hosted communications. I believe UC vendors have reached a plateau in terms of feature development. Yes, there is still some innovation taking place in applications development, more specifically around the user interface, as well as in communications applications integration with productivity and business applications. But the move to new technology deployment/consumption models is going to have a much more profound impact on vendor business strategies and competitive positioning.
I predict some major M&A activity over the next 12 months as there remain too many vendors competing for too few enterprise dollars, and there will be less room for medium size suppliers who are squeezed between the Giants and very small specialists / startups. I also expect service providers to step forward from the sidelines make a major push with cloud services, perhaps driving legacy incumbent vendors to consolidate or fold due to aggressive replacement strategies.
Done right, I believe the merger of Microsoft Lync and Skype could be a game changer over the next 12 months. Seeing 23K IT professionals hanging on the words of CEO Satya Nadella, as many analysts did last week at the Microsoft Ignite event, makes one believe that company has a major opportunity to change the game as they add Skype-based PSTN calling features to Skype for Business.
Realistically, there are no game changers in any 12 month UC period. Enterprise Comms is a slow game. 12 months is the equivalent of a time-out. We are still dealing with VoIP, convergence, and smartphones. Bottom line is we are more connected than ever before, and more conversant than ever before - yet oddly enterprise comms is less important. The industry promises BYOD and work anywhere, and then wonders why people are using their own apps and not buying hard phones. I am very optimistic that these changes are positive for the industry. Enterprise Comms vendors are slowly shifting from being feature focused to focusing on flexibility, simplicity, and security. These topics were not top of mind a decade ago.
I think vendors will be impacted by the use of WebRTC to add UC to other apps, beyond that I think the migration to the cloud will drive rapid vendor change in how they manage and provision services, and most importantly how they monetize their offerings.
Do you think video calls will replace the default audio phone calls as the primary method of communicating?
Not for the current generation. Digital natives, on the other hand, are more video-friendly, but even for them, they’ll only use it for business if it makes sense. We’re probably another Web generation away from video becoming the go-to mode for business, but even then, it’s also very possible that short-form text modes will provide more utility than either voice or video. There is a lot of momentum to suggest this already, but old habits don’t change easily, and it’s hard to say how tomorrow’s generation will view these different modes in terms of business value.
Video is reaching a broader audience as it becomes an inexpensive and easily accessible feature in new desktop collaboration tools as well as on new models of media desktop phones. However, I believe there is a behavioral element involved that will prevent a lot of people from making video their default mode of communications. In addition to concerns about physical appearance (e.g., home workers dressed in lounge wear) and environmental factors (e.g., kids and pets running around the house), video can be distracting. Trying to actually watch the other person/people on the screen prevents the speaker from effectively perusing related documents or even concentrating on the topic at hand.
Video take up has seen enormous gains in the consumer marketplace, and increasingly younger workers will drive video adoption within the enterprise. Always-on connected devices, widespread BYOD, a "Selfie" culture, and ever easier to use apps in the enterprise market will mean video will increasingly the first choice e.g. default mode of communications.
Video may become more common over the next few years, but within a reasonable horizon (say 5 years) I do not see it becoming the primary method of communicating. In a recent piece of research conducted by 24/7, 37% of respondents said they would NEVER choose a video interaction if offered one.
Depends what is meant by "default." I suppose desktop to desktop comms between "buddies" will soon be more likely to be video than just audio. But video is not ideal for all situations. The PSTN isn't going away anytime soon. I prefer video over audio communications for several reasons, yet still find myself on the phone quite a bit. The phone is simple, cheap, effective, and universal. It's impervious to bad hair days and bad lighting. We don't lose our telephones nor do their batteries die. Video will continue to increase, but reports of its death are greatly exaggerated.
We see this rarely, and usually only driven by executive mandate. In most companies the trend is toward less invasive communications like text messaging.
Video will be an option for all modes of communication, primarily for information exchange, but not necessarily for face-to-face conversations. End users may not always want to be “on camera.”
What are some of the most common security risks of UC, and how can organizations prepare for and prevent them?
They’re not much different than with just using VoIP. First would be the risk of using UC in fixed line settings. Anything that exposes VoIP to the public Internet can be problematic, and with UC, there will be more scenarios for using PC-based VoIP, either via Web platforms or with softphones. Of greater concern is the growing need to use UC in mobile settings, which often occurs over unsecured WiFi networks. On top of that comes the risk of mobile devices becoming lost or stolen, and if employees are careless with password protection, this opens another avenue for problems.
UC presents security risks to the extent to which all the infrastructure elements that come together to create a UC solution present any security risks. That includes network (WAN and LAN), data center, device and user (human factor) vulnerabilities. Each factor needs to be addressed separately to ensure greater UC security protection. I suppose BOYT is currently top of mind for most IT professionals concerned about UC security.
Security risks in the UC world are generally not well understood, and real time comms has a unique set of threats and challenges that are not familiar to the IT generalist. As such specialist skills are required, and specialist solutions, to adequately defend against IP communications security threats. A major security risk is not using an SBC, and relying on your network provider and/or vendor to protect your own UC network.
Too many too list. Real-time communications are rarely secure. You will see a bigger push with encrypted solutions this year - long overdue. The golden child, WebRTC, is a ticking time bomb in this regard. The surprising shift in security is the perception towards the cloud. A few years ago, security concerns were cited as a major reason to stay with premises-based solutions and suddenly that's flipped. The reality is that security is hard. It requires constant vigilance to stay protected. Larger cloud service providers can afford to do this
I think the biggest risk is from an attack that exposes internal communications to the outside world, e.g. a trojan that captures texts or potentially allows eavesdropping of audio and/or video. Another big risk is corruption of mobile devices. Companies need to stay current on patches, consider UC security in the broader context of their IT security strategy, and implement tools like advanced threat protection to protect against zero-day attacks.
Controlling access to all forms of communications by others. That includes protecting privacy and any form of information that may be stored by end users or business processes.
When choosing a VoIP/UC provider, what is the one question that most consumers think is a good question, but is actually pretty inconsequential?
Consumers – end users, really – are generally not involved in the buying process for UC, although that is starting to change – and that’s a good thing. For UC to be deployed successfully, there must be end user engagement, and for that to happen, UC has to provide some new form of utility. To the extent end users have a chance to pose a question – either directly to vendors or to the decision makers in their company – it would be natural for them to ask if this is going to be user-friendly. It’s a valid question, especially since IT doesn’t have a great track record in this area. Vendors are becoming more user-centric now, and if they deliver a great user experience with UC, it will be an inconsequential question. However, the concern of end users is based on experience, and if their concerns turn out to be well founded, the UC deployment will fail for sure.
I am afraid there are no inconsequential questions/concerns when it comes to customers and their hard-earned money. Features/functionality, price, reliability, security, integrations and customizability, provider financial stability—it all matters to a small or a large degree depending on customer needs and preferences. I suppose VoIP quality (i.e., echo, jitter) may still be a major concern for some but is really much less of an issue today than it used to be a decade ago.
I think pricing can be an inconsequential question. The price of a box or a license in and of itself is almost meaningless. It is the Total Cost of Ownership that is important; how much will something cost not just to buy or lease, but to operate over a period of time. This includes support costs and the cost of downtime. The reason I think unit price is inconsequential is that, having been married to a sales executive for almost 30 years, I know that all pricing is negotiable, so there is seldom a single “price” for anything.
The SLA. It's like a warranty on a toaster. A broken toaster is a problem. Even if they fix it every time, it's still a lot of no-toast mornings. It's better to focus more on the toaster itself than the warranty. SLAs explains what happens in the case of no toast, and that is important. I advise clients to focus criteria on areas that minimize outages. This can be hard, reference checks are important.
Cost. Cost variances between providers aren't enormous, and are often dependent on factors specific to each customer, but in the end features, manageability, and the ability to integrate into the existing environment are far more important success factors.
Is a UC solution suitable for every type and size of business out there?
Short answer is yes. The key here is the deployment model. Larger businesses, especially those with entrenched relationships with telecom vendors will likely favor premise-based UC. Smaller businesses, however, will lean more towards a cloud-based offering, or hybrid UC which blends these two models. Cloud-based UC offerings are really proliferating, with many targeted to the low end of SMBs. For these businesses, the UC offering will be scaled down, focusing mostly on voice and data applications, but still enough to add value.
I guess the fair answer is “yes, but in due time”. If a business has a working legacy system that is not costing them an arm and a leg to maintain and is still providing enough features for the business to compete effectively in its own industry, then there is no urgent need to deploy a more advanced UC solution. Eventually, the business won’t even have a choice—all that is going to be available in the market will be UC systems or cloud UC services.
The UC landscape has a rich set of solutions and services to meet every size and niche of the market, ranging from consumer-focused free-mium services to cloud and CPE solutions engineered for large enterprises. Increasingly SME cloud services are also mobile first, delivered by cloud with minimum upfront costs which are ideal for the small yet growing companies. On the enterprise side most vendors are offering hybrid cloud solutions and / or cloud only enabling large, distributed enterprises to collaborate and communicate across hundreds of locations with seamless directory and presence services.
This comes down to a question of definition. Does every business need communications tools? Yes. Does every business need mobile access to business information? Again, yes, and that involves communications infrastructure of some kind. UC is a term of art – every businesses need communications tools.
Every type and size of organization has a UC solution. In many companies, the IT leadership are just unaware of it. It goes by BYO App, shadow IT, and other names.
No, it really depends on the needs of the organization and more specifically, types of users within an organization. We see many small companies that rely solely on mobile phones and team chat apps. We see groups within large companies that only need email and telephone
Yes – UC is for all types of end users involved in a business process, especially when they may be mobile and need the flexibility of UC
What is an underrated feature or way of communicating via UCC that businesses/consumers should know about?
Probably the ability to do ad-hoc conferencing, especially when there’s good mobile integration. Most businesses only know from using conferencing for scheduled meetings, and that requires a lot of planning. Collaborating on the fly is more common now, and this will be a new capability that end users may not expect, but will really help them be more productive.
UCC has traditionally been focused on "telecom" features and has ignored many features outside of the traditional PBX domain. Mobile Users esp. Millennials have demonstrated that they love messaging as a form of communication and engagement, and UC vendors are starting to notice by integration messaging capability into all aspects of the User Experience and workflow.
FAX. Seriously, it's less about features and more about services. There's an unbelievable number of services out there. I think some of the more interesting areas or scheduling and location aware solutions.
I think IT teams should pay attention to two emerging capabilities: team chat apps as I mentioned earlier (e.g. Cisco Spark, HipChat, Glip, Slack, etc.) and the convergence of phone and desktop, enabling for example the sending of text messages from a PC.
The use of flexible automated notifications from authorized business processes to multimodal mobile endpoint devices for faster and more efficient involvement of people in time-sensitive operational situations. Also, exploiting mobile UC for customer service is just starting to be recognized as having the greatest ROI for UC.
What is one potential feature or way of communicating via UC that as far as you know doesn't exist, but you'd like to see in the future?
I’d say a UC environment that is totally voice-activated, where end users don’t need keypads or touch screens. This would really open up the possibilities for collaboration, and to do that, UC platforms will have be more advanced in terms of speech recognition – and same for the endpoints. On a broader scale, this touches on the Internet of Things and the new forms of value that can be created by the emerging field of predictive analytics.
Probably everything I can think of already exists. Perhaps with mobile communications devices becoming primary endpoints for some and desktop phones and PCs remaining table stakes for others, any features that convert the most common modes of communication for mobile users to the most common modes of communication for desk-bound uses (and back) can provide value to both user groups. What I mean is mobile text/SMS to email and email to mobile text, voice call to mobile text/SMS and so on. I suppose what I am also asking for is universal federation across networks, devices and apps.
Oculus promised a unique VR experience with the first devices appearing in the market in 2016. I would love to see VR adopted in the enterprise as a "poor mans" telepresence, perhaps even displacing high end $100K telepresence rooms.
Speech has a lot of potential yet. Many people find email and text preferable to voice mail. When we are conversing in the same room we have the choice to talk or type, and we choose talk. As soon as we are out of earshot, we type. So the technology is causing a discrepancy between our normal or natural mode of interaction. Speech recognition is still too cumbersome and that says a lot when you consider the frustrations associated with auto correct. Natural language interfaces are foreseeable. I often now dictate my texts, but the pre-send edit is almost as much effort as typing the whole text from scratch.
Persistent web conferencing, the ability to hold a web conference with screen sharing, note taking, etc., and then keep that room going perpetually, with team members jumping into the room and picking up from where they left off.
Separating the different requirements of contact initiators from those of recipients, while allowing individual end user to exploit the flexibility of UC independently in their respective business process roles.
How will UC platforms converge with social media in the near future?
This could become very disruptive, especially for the established UC players, and will happen to the extent social media adds value to UC. It’s easy to see how this benefits end users, but can also threaten the status quo. If the incumbent UC vendors can be proactive and find a way to converge with social media - but also maintain control of the overall experience, they will remain the core hub for UC. However, if social media platforms move faster and create new value that serves as a proxy for UC applications, it will be the UC vendors that need to converge with them, effectively giving up a lot of control they could have had.
UC vendors are creating team collaboration tools that resemble social networking tools and social networking vendors are integrating their platforms with UC solutions for real-time communications. I do not believe social media the way we know it in the consumer space can/should be replicated in a business environment. After all, in the consumer space it is all about the user’s ego and need for self-expression—hence the rave about selfies and “likes” and so on. Elements of consumer social media will, however, make sense in a business environment—more specifically, team spaces based on interests/projects, etc. with persistent chat, content management and so on.
Enterprise social has failed to catch fire, and adoption has been slow and limited across the enterprise. However given initiatives like Facebook for Business and LinkedIn adoption I anticipate social networking breaking up traditional enterprise barriers to entry, in particular psychological barriers to adoption that have limited socials appeal.
I think this kind of convergence is already happening. Tools like Cisco Spark, Unify Circuit and Interactive Intelligence Collaborate have attempted to embed a social media element, e.g., become Facebook for the enterprise in a secure way. However, I think all of these tools still struggle with how to pass interactions from a secure environment to public social media tools.
It's already occurring. UC, document sharing, note taking, and business social media are all converging. There's going to be bits everywhere. But it's ok, we can sort them out as the social bits are bit drunk.
I think you are already seeing the convergence, e.g. Jive's ability to embed Cisco UC, or Microsoft's acquisition of Yammer, or IBM merging social into its broader desktop collaboration capabilities.
Beyond the shift to the SMB market for carriers, what other major trends should providers be focusing on right now?
Making sure their own networks are agile enough to keep pace with the changing needs that UC is trying to address. As traditional carrier revenues decline, they need to offer services and trim operating costs to remain competitive, especially against OTT operators. These pressures are causing carriers to look more closely at virtualization and cloud-based elements that reduce the need for costly, physical infrastructure. This takes us to the hottest acronyms carriers are now learning more about, namely SDN and NFV.
Customer retention. Everything in our lives today favors mobility, flexibility and choices—in the broadest sense of these words. Customers are better informed than ever before and have multiple options available to them for almost anything related to communications and IT. Features and price typically get a customer on board. But customers can easily switch providers if they are not satisfied with the service they are being offered. And some of the key factors that could impact a customer decision to switch are service quality issues (e.g., service availability/uptime) and poor customer support.
I believe service providers should be more focused on creating mobile-first offers. Carriers – with their vendors – need to create a break-through offer that recognizes that a desk phone and a land line are a thing of the past for a majority of today’s workers. Mobile offers from carriers should include cloud-based access to business applications, e.g., like Salesforce and SAP.
Interop. The next Blue Jeans like service will be between messaging first collaboration apps. Several startups are already working this, but it will be a while because the paint has to dry on the problem before the solution can set.
Guaranteeing network performance for cloud services, especially for customers who connect via the Internet. They should focus on cloud-to-cloud federation, e.g. enabling their UC services to be available from within other cloud apps. An example is integration between a hosted UC platform and Salesforce.com.
Carriers have to support their mobile subscribers by enabling accommodating both visual and voice user interfaces for cloud interactions with people and self-service applications. Carriers must also support their subscribers with “sandboxed” applications that can keep their different personal and business interactions separated and manageable within a single endpoint device.