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February 15, 2010

VoIP, UC and UCC: Still Driven by Consumer Tools?

By Gary Kim, Contributing Editor

A funny thing has happened to VoIP, unified communications and videoconferencing. Originally seen by many developers as products most important to business and enterprise users, each has gotten most traction in the consumer space.

Analysts at Gartner (News - Alert), for example, now say that consumer markets, and not the unified communications and collaboration vendors, are driving innovation in the UCC space.
“They are driving corporate user expectations and requirements, particularly as the blurring of work and leisure tasks and time drives a demand for personal products to be used for work purposes,” Jeff Mann, Gartner research vice president, said.
Sometimes that trend is not so visible, in part because analysts track UCC primarily as an 'enterprise' product, and partly because consumer UCC services are monetized indirectly.
Skype (News - Alert) points out that more than 30 percent of its global user base uses the service for business, while “an average of 34 percent of Skype-to-Skype calls now including video,” Josh Silverman, Skype CEO, said.
The other potential change is that distinctions between the components that make up unified communications will no longer exist by 2013, Jeff Mann, Gartner vice president, predicted. Some will disagree with that forecast. In fact, even more than that might be at work.
Business end users typically treat the unified communication and collaboration components--voice, messaging, conferencing, IM, presence, applications, clients, social networks and collaboration tools--in silos, Mann said.
The big change here is 'collaboration,' and in a far-broader sense than simply implying 'telepresence' or 'video conferencing,' which is the way the term often is understood.
Business collaboration means sharing information, and that means what we used to call 'knowledge management.' Large organizations, where people do not know each other face to face and personally, possess all sorts of information that could be helpful to workers who typically have no way of gaining access to skills and knowledge 'hidden' elsewhere in the organization.
The problem is that such information is hard to find. But knowledge management historically has been considered a different business than communications.
Collaboration these days, used in the phrase 'UCC,' tends to employ video-enabled communications. That might be partly true. But it isn't completely true. Collaboration includes all the ways people work together, and that inevitably means 'communications' is bumping up against 'knowledge management' functions.
That's an awful lot of significant change: consumers leading adoption, notions of what UC is changing, and a porosity of 'communications' and 'collaboration' solutions and functions.
On top of all that, many business customers still do not seem to have an intuitive grasp of the value UC represents, or seem not to buy the current cost-benefit equation. One might chalk that up to 'too much jargon' on the part of marketers. But one might also suggest that some buyers are comfortable with 'point' solutions that address perceived needs in more obvious ways.
Conferencing solutions might be seen as solutions that can be bought on a stand-alone basis, for example. That might be true for other elements of UC or UCC as well.
One might suggest that is one reason why consumer solutions have gained such prominence. They are affordable, easy to use and uncomplicated. They solve immediate problems users can clearly understand.
So the possible problem with highly-integrated UC or UCC solutions is that they tightly bundle too many solutions to too many problems. Users tend to buy solutions to problems they understand.
The other issue is that too much bundling means buying things an organization might not be terribly keen on having. They might be 'nice to have,' but not 'must have' solutions.
Highly integrated and comprehensive solutions often also require 'forklift' upgrades that are complicated and more expensive than buyers might anticipate.
Simplicity might be an issue here. People might have higher expectations than they used to that 'things will just work.' Complexity tends to cut the other way, reducing the chance that solutions will simply work, and work simply.
To the extent that UCC entails complexity, it is creating its own problems for adoption. That is likely one reason business users are showing some preference for consumer solutions, and might be receptive to business solutions crafted on a consumer base.
Skype, for example, has hired David Gurle as general manager of the 'Skype for Business' unit. 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.
That suggests a new push by Skype into the business space, as Google and Apple (News - Alert) in various ways also are doing.
Some 79 percent of respondents to a recent survey by Global IP Solutions (News - Alert) said that they currently use a consumer application such as Skype as their primary videoconferencing application, for example.
Skype also is used for international traffic and many businesses are becoming more open to using hosted solutions for business applications.
An argument might also be made that much of the value of UC or UCC actually is captured by use of relatively simple tools such as Skype, or Google Voice or any number of other rather easy to understand consumer applications.
To be sure, 'Skype for Asterisk' has been available since 2008, allowing users probably Asterisk-based PBX systems to place, receive and transfer Skype calls from PBX desk phones.
'Skype for SIP' was launched in 2009, offering interoperability between Nortel and Cisco PBXs and the Skype network.
There's nothing wrong with those efforts, or full-blown enterprise-grade UC and UCC solutions. But we might still find that simple consumer solutions, even if not 'unified,' will continue to resonate with many business users.

Gary Kim (News - Alert) is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of Gary’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Amy Tierney

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