Some Thoughts on Unified Communications

This is normally not my area, but it is related to social and collaboration technologies and is merging into the areas I cover as an analyst. Wikipedia defines Unified Communications (UC) is  “the integration of real-time communication services such as instant messaging (chat), presence information, telephony (including IP telephony), video conferencing, data sharing (including web connected electronic whiteboards aka IWB’s or Interactive White Boards), call control and speech recognition with non-real-time communication services such as unified messaging (integrated voicemail, e-mail, SMS and fax).”

I have written about UC recently when I covered ConnectSolutions in a blog last month. I also think this area is changing rapidly.   One of the factors is a new standard (owned by Google, but there is an open source version) WebRTC is this new standard that is changing the face of video conferencing, and ultimately UC.

According to Wikipedia, WebRTC  “is an API definition being drafted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to enable browser to browser applications for voice calling, video chat and P2P file sharing without plugins. We have started to see a number of this new generation of social/collaboration tools, UberConference, Calliflower, Oblong (Mezzanine), and Live Minutes become available. Their big benefit is that they run in most any browser and don’t require a plug-in.

I want to use examples from 3 different vendors I was briefed by recently to support some of the trends and directions I see in the social/collaboration and UC industries.

TelyLabs – is really more of a videoconferencing company, it offers a low-cost solution for room-based meetings (other low-cost solutions include: Logitech’s ConferenceCam,  Starleaf Systems, Vidtel, Vidyo/Ricoh P3000).. Often the physical space for an executive meeting room that uses Cisco Telepresence or LifeSize can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. These are room-based systems that offer “telepresence” i.e. the person on the screen looks and sounds like they are with you in the same room). The problem is you have to buy at least 2 rooms from the same vendor because all these rooms and equipment are proprietary.  Add maintenance on to that and you have the reason why Wainhouse has noted a 16.3% decline year over year.

But most meeting rooms cost a lot less by a factor of 10-20 (i.e. not $300k but $15-30k). Most conference rooms don’t have this equipment.  Many have a “Polycom Starfish phone” some have larger TV monitors on the wall, but most meeting rooms today (about 90% do not have full functioning, easy to use video-conferencing.

However, there are lots of software video solutions:  Skype, Google Hangouts (which I have not been very successful with, but my colleague Dave Gardner has found to work well), Vidyo, Bluejeans Networks, Magor, etc. All support connections with almost any video endpoint (tablet, web cam, mobile, desktop, etc.) from any vendor so you the user don’t have to worry about that connection.

Trends We Can See

  • Ease of use – whatever you use needs to be very easy to use, i.e. a few button pushes or screen clicks to get going. (In the past I have needed an engineer in the room to do videoconferencing)
  • Standards: Many of these tools work with one standard or another. For instance TelyLabs works with all SIP systems no matter who makes them, but there are also many XMPP based systems they don’t connect to. Also consider the emergence of new standards like WebRTC (which technically is owned by Google, but there is an open source version available).  The main advantage of WebRTC is that it works in a browser (on any platform) and does not require a Flash or Java download
  • Cross Company and cross system activity is increasing. Most so called collaborative spaces have moved from inside the firewall to working with systems from other companies, partners, customers, suppliers, consultants, etc. that are outside the firewall. In addition, all of these groups might not even be on the same system or platform. But everything has to work seamlessly, still be secure, and available to those that have permission. A study we did earlier this year showed that 45% use these tools to connect with content experts outside the company, 57% to connect to partners, 55% to sub-contractors and 57% to clients/customers.
  • Move to Cloud and virtual meeting rooms:

With all of these cloud-based services (software) popping up it is easy to see that as the market matures what was once in hardware has moved to software. Many of these companies are cloud-based rather than premise-based, where they take care of the MCU and other hardware and all you need are the end-points.

  • Mobility: Chances are that with the ubiquity of mobile devices today that one or more of the people in your meeting is using one for the video conference. As a result we have started to see vendors implementing a “mobile first” strategy and ultimately to new apps like: Mindmeld,UberConference, and Biba (which is the vendor I will cover in the next blog).