August 27, 2012

Prediction: UC Morphs into Social and Disappears

Having watched the evolution of unified communications in the context of overall information and communications technologies, I have come to the conclusion that "UC" as an independent offering is not long for this world. The basic capabilities that are afforded in UC will all still exist and will make users far more efficient and productive; however they will be offered in another place and form. There are a number of things that have brought me to this conclusion.

The team at coined the quintessential definition of UC as, "Communications integrated to optimize business processes". Deceptively simple in its presentation, these six words effectively describe the two major categories of UC applications as well as indicating its direction in the future.

UC applications can be divided into these two broad categories:
  • UC-User Productivity or UC-U: Unified Communications tools that users adopt to improve their experience and/or results.
  • UC-Business Processes or UC-B: Unified Communications tools that are explicitly integrated into defined processes, either by procedures or automation.
The first, UC-U is typically the most widely recognized and is aimed primarily at knowledge workers and delivers a desktop client, sometimes packaged as a plugin for an email program like Outlook that allows users access to a presence-enabled corporate directory and the full range of communications (i.e. voice, video, email, and text) and collaboration (audio/video conferencing, web meeting, desk sharing and white boarding).

UC-B is focused on integrating communications into a much wider range of applications. A user on any application be it order entry, mortgage processing, insurance claims adjusting may need to reach out to a customer, a supervisor, or a subject matter expert. Exiting out of that application to go to Outlook for an email or Lync to send a text is a needless waste of time. It also means that that communication is not be automatically linked to the transaction or will have to be linked manually (if at all).

The adoption of social media in the consumer space is a leading indicator about the expected direction of UC. Today, the typical portal to UC is a plugin for Outlook, or possibly for Lotus Notes. For most business users, the email program is where we go for the majority of our communications activities and enabling voice, video, text, and conferencing from that same screen only makes sense.

However, people might finally be waking up to the fact that email is a lousy way to collaborate, and collaborative workspaces seem to hold the answer. The younger generation, who I refer to as "Generation C" for the "connected generation", has already abandoned email and now use Facebook, Skype, or Google as their communications portal. I see an interesting parallel to the early days of texting when most corporate IT departments banned that communications mode because the bosses all saw their kids wasting time on AOL Instant Messenger instead of doing their homework. It took a few years but eventually everyone figured out the kids had it right, and text was a great tool for certain types of communications.

With the exception of LinkedIn, the social media providers have done a great job at integrating presence and communications into their offerings, and also have developed mobile apps to access them.  In fact, these mobile apps are having far greater success than the mobile UC apps we've seen from the likes of Cisco, Microsoft, Avaya, and the rest. They have also gone a lot farther at integrating location information, one of the key functionalities in mobile.

The one area where the consumer social sites have fallen short is in collaboration. Facebook is great for casual exchanges, but for real work, we need to be able to schedule and join conferences, engage web meetings, share desktops, and collaborate on documents, spreadsheets, or other work products. That may be the capability that keeps enterprise oriented UC offerings in the game.

While the UC-U market may be overtaken by consumer-oriented social sites, the UC-B segment appears poised to be subsumed by the independent software vendors (ISVs). Where UC-U looks to boost knowledge worker productivity, the ISVs are finding ways to do this with offerings like SAP's NetWeaver, Microsoft Dynamics, Oracle Beehive, or's Chatter. All of those vendors now provide the capability to generate an email or a text and in some cases a voice call directly from a business application. Once again, why should a user have to exit the application they're working in so they can send a text or an email related to the task they're working on?

So as UC continues to evolve, my guess is that it will essentially become invisible. Certainly the capabilities like presence, multi-modal communications and collaboration will be offered, but they will simply be built into every application. We are already seeing a lot of this with smartphones that allow the user to highlight a telephone number or email address in virtually any application and immediately launch a communication.

For knowledge users, the bigger change will be the shift to social/collaborative workspaces. With geographically dispersed project teams collaborating on projects, the traditional email chains simply won't cut it, particularly when you have two or more team members updating the same section and creating three out-of-sync versions of the work. UC-enabled transaction systems will create similar efficiencies in countless business processes. In both cases all of the communication exchanges will be stored with the transaction or the work product making it far easier to reconstruct how decisions were made. It will still be "work", but it will be done in a lot better way.


How does Google Doc stack up against the collaboration offerings from Microsoft, Cisco, and the rest?

Google certainly has a credible offering, and you can't beat the price. Personally, I find the user interface and controls a little balky compared to the "packaged" solutions we have from the enterprise UC vendors. Hangouts added screen sharing to the offering. Undoubtedly it's being used by enterprise customers, and if that's what they get used to and it does the job for them, they are likely to stick with it.

You say that “mobile apps are having far greater success than the mobile UC apps we’ve seen from the likes of Cisco, Microsoft, Avaya, and the rest. They have also gone a lot farther at integrating location information, one of the key functionalities in mobile.” What will it take for these players to catch up?

In the current model I don't know if they can. The UC vendors are building mobile clients, but the manufacturers (Apple in particular) don't give you access to all of the device's functions like the dialer. The result is that making business calls involves a different process than making personal calls- no one is putting up with that. If everything starts to shift to a browser-based model or something along the lines of Skype, then they could potentially emulate that same sort of operation.

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