Unified communications for reals

by Dave Michels

It all started with Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Prior to VoIP, the PBX was totally independent with its own server connected to proprietary endpoints (telephones) over a proprietary network. VoIP enabled telephony to co-mingle with other servers, networks and endpoints.

Telephony grabbed hold of the concept of unified communications (UC) and made “PBX” a legacy term. A single UC client could support voice, voicemail and instant messaging (IM). UC APIs offered communications capabilities to other applications.

+ Also on Network World: Office, Outlook, Slack, Handoff: The digital workplace reborn +

While the UC industry has done a great deal with multi-modal communications, it has not been successful at unifying communications. In many ways, we are more connected and converse more than ever before, but most of these conversations occur outside of the UC suite.

Email is the big one. Email still technically works, but it was never designed for today’s workload. Last in, first out just isn’t practical with today’s volume of messages. The Radicati Group recently reported that 132 billion emails are expected to be sent and received daily by the end of 2017.

Another culprit is messaging. First, it was consumer apps such as Skype, Hangouts and Facebook. Then came enterprise apps such as Slack and HipChat, which were created specifically for business. These applications are better suited for the way communications styles and preferences have changed.

We used to go to meetings and become otherwise unavailable by leaving our desks and phones behind, knowing our calls would go to voicemail. Today, we take our phones with us. We are always connected, so our calls follow and interrupt us. It’s too easy for messages to get lost in email and voicemail, so messaging provides an interesting alternative. Simply put, it can be more urgent than email without being as intrusive as calling.

Messaging apps, though islands themselves, also work across organizational boundaries. The instant messaging applications associated with UC clients are mostly limited to internal colleagues. Internal-only workplace communications systems simply don’t make a lot of sense anymore.

While UC APIs have enabled other applications for communications, these new messaging apps use APIs the other way: to bring content from other apps into the centralized “workstream.” They effectively become a workplace portal, which is why I call them workstream messaging applications. Other popular names for this emerging category include team chat and workstream collaboration.

Just don’t call them unified communications apps. They shun that title as much as the UC industry shunned PBX. Oddly enough, however, that’s exactly what they do best. In addition to providing visibility across multiple applications, workstream messaging applications also offer a unified portal to people (directories and contacts), content (shared documents) and communications (asynchronous and real time).

3 workstream messaging categories

Quite a few workstream messaging applications are playing a form of feature Leapfrog. I put these apps into three broad categories. The first being startups. Here, Slack gets most of the attention because it was the first to really build traction in workstream messaging. The big question is whether Slack will continue to grow and become the next Facebook or inspire larger competitors and become the next Netscape.

The second category includes well-known, established firms such as Facebook and IBM that see a new opportunity. One colloquial way to describe workstream messaging is indeed Facebook for work, and that’s the logic of Workplace by Facebook. In addition to a low price per user, Workplace offers reduced training, since the app is so like its consumer service. IBM Workspace uses Watson AI to automate tasks and determine context.

The third category includes the UC companies that were mostly asleep at the switch but are suddenly engaged. This includes companies such as Cisco, Microsoft, Unify, RingCentral and many others that have created, built or acquired workstream messaging applications. The advantage they bring to the table is extensive experience with real-time communications, including telephony.

Real-time communications, plus real-time telephony

Now that there’s a clear shift in preferences and behaviors toward messaging, the UC companies are scrambling to adapt. That may seem like a big task, but at the same time, the messaging companies are pushing to figure out real-time telephony. That includes telephones, conferencing, contact centers and decades of interfaces.

These workstream messaging applications effectively capture (and preserve) conversations across multiple modalities, including voice. Telephony may not be sexy, but it remains important and complex. If anyone is going to figure out UC 2.0, the UC vendors have a significant advantage.

Microsoft has developed Teams as a Slack-like workstream messaging application. It is included at no additional cost with its enterprise Office 365 subscriptions. It already supports video and will likely integrate or merge with Skype for Business for telephony. Office 365 subscriptions dwarf Slack subscriptions. Other services included in Office 365 are Office, email, Skype for Business and OneDrive.

Cisco developed Spark for messaging and has already integrated it with Cisco UC solutions. Cisco is also leveraging its expertise in conferencing by integrating WebEx and its telepresence solutions into Spark. WebEx subscriptions dwarf Slack subscriptions, plus Cisco recently launched Spark Board for meeting rooms. Spark Board is the first hardware device exclusively made for workstream messaging.

I can’t list them all here, but the story has a clear pattern. UC companies with rich, real-time solutions are nailing messaging. Unify, the first of the UC companies to launch a workstream messaging app (Circuit), integrates with its UC solutions as well as third-party UC platforms via a SIP connector. RingCentral, a pure-cloud service, bundles its Office service with its workstream messaging app (Glip).

All of these apps share common elements, such as persistent messaging, strong APIs, shared content, and search and discovery. The UC offers also include integrated telephony, conferencing services, telephones and contact centers.

A key value to workstream messaging is indeed unified communications, or perhaps more precisely, unified conversations. Messaging is newly preferred, but existing modalities are not going away. The solutions that don’t support voice today will likely do so in the future one way or another, so it’s worth adding telephony into the evaluation criteria.

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