March 2021 Insider Report
The Most Important Enterprise Communications News from March 2021
Let’s Talk About March 2021: They never make a stink about this on Game of Thrones, but winter is going. The days are getting longer. The big news this month was the end of the pandemic!
It’s hard to put a date on exactly when the pandemic started, and it will be even harder to determine when (or if) it ends. To be clear, it hasn’t ended, nor is it likely coronavirus will ever be eradicated. But it feels like America decided the pandemic ended in March.
There are certainly good reasons to think it ended. Vaccines are rapidly being deployed. Coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths are way down. The CDC has lowered distancing requirements in schools. TSA is reporting new highs in airport travelers. Theaters are reopening, and cruises are planning to sail again. Those are all great indicators, but the fat lady is still self-isolating.
Earlier in the month things were looking pretty good with a mere 55K new daily infections. But, cases are now ticking up again in 22 states. Toward the end of the month, President Biden warned that too many Americans are declaring virus victory prematurely. The head of the CDC said she had a feeling of “impending doom” regarding a coming fourth wave.
Throughout this entire pandemic, there’s been an assumption that it will be over soon. So far that’s been consistently wrong. A year ago, they rescheduled Enterprise Connect (#EC20) from spring to fall. I doubt things will just get better overnight, and a staircase decline may indeed be the best we can expect. Personally, I got my first shot and bought a ticket to MCO for #EC21.
The enterprise comms industry is likely conflicted about the pandemic’s end. The pandemic has been very good in general for cloud adoption, and distributed teams forced demand for new tools, devices, and approaches. Currently, the industry is gearing up for hybrid workplaces, touchless interfaces, and other changes. Post-pandemic, will those changes endure, or is the world going to favor the way things were?
While we are all anxious to put this pandemic behind us, there’s a misperception about how great things used to be. People have forgotten all about the traffic jams and canceled flights — and don’t get me started on the noise and open floor plans. When the pandemic ends, most things will get better, but not everything. For example, the pandemic caused a drop in oil; with a return to normalcy, we can look forward to rising prices and more carbon emissions.
2020 also had a big drop in mass shootings, which are already returning (a great reason to stay home). The Boulder shooting, at my grocery store, marked the seventh mass shooting in 2021 — and it occurred within a week of another in Atlanta.
General Industry News
Google Workspace Frontline: The enterprise comms industry is no longer content fighting over knowledge workers. The breakthrough is async communications coupled with BYO devices, and several providers are now targeting frontline/firstline/deskless use cases. Google has joined the firstline fight with the release of Workspace Frontline. It looks a lot like regular Google Workspace (previously known as G Suite). Both regular and frontline editions include Gmail, Chat, Meet, Docs, Drive, and more, as well as business-grade support and security features like advanced endpoint management.
Twilio and Syniverse: This is a very interesting deal. Twilio intends to make a $750M minority investment into Syniverse, a leading IP Packet Exchange (IPX) provider. In other words, probably Syniverse’s largest customer for its SMS aggregator business is becoming an owner.
Both sides win: Twilio locked in multiyear, discounted costs for SMS, which should improve its margins. Most importantly, carriers trust Syniverse more than they trust Twilio, so Twilio will likely get access to more of the routes it needs for global expansion. Syniverse retains a big customer, some comms API expertise, and will use the money to pay down debt. The exit is quite likely an eventual IPO or SPAC. This deal occurs not long after Twilio’s $3.2B acquisition of Segment.
Dial 10 Digits, It’s the Law: Starting October 24, it will take 10 digits to dial a US domestic number. That’s not new for most of the country, but there are 37 states with affected area codes. The changes are intended to accommodate a future National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number: 988 (July 2022).
Really, we shouldn’t need 10 digits. The US did fine with seven-digit dialing for over a hundred years. In the late ‘90s, new tech caused a run on the dial plan. Homes were adding second lines for AOL, and maybe a third for WFH. Cellphones were growing faster than pagers were disappearing. We also had fax and voicemail numbers. These were the days when it was common to print a small directory on the back of business cards. The cities that were or could foresee being out of numbers went to 10-digit dialing.
Now things have normalized in terms of demand, but we waste numbers on noncallable services. An archaic solution to number portability means every cellphone has a phantom forwarding number assigned to it. Also, fiber trunks, SIM cards (and eSIMs), and various consumer devices such as CPAP machines have telephone numbers.
FCC Broadband Benefit: The FCC this month established the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. The program is expected to provide $3.2B in discounts on internet service bills for qualifying households as well as discounts on a computer or tablet. To get more people connected, I’d rather see monopoly-bashing programs that lower costs overall (Americans pay relatively high rates for slower services), but it’s a start.
Google and T-Mobile: Google and T-Mobile announced an Android partnership that will make Google Messages the default app on all new T-Mobile Android Phones. Other aspects of the partnership include T-Mobile selling Pixel phones (like Verizon) and replacing TVision streaming services (launched five months ago) with YouTube TV.
What stands out here is expanded support of RCS — now best described as an upgrade to SMS. It’s been a long, ridiculous road to get RCS into the wild, and many now consider it already obsolete. Its main advantage is support for rich formatting — for example, being able to text someone a barcode.
Supposedly, T-Mobile has “the most Android smartphone customers in the US” (probably helped by Google Fi users). Google already struck an arrangement with Verizon to support RCS. Samsung is now shipping Google Messages as its default app on all non-US phones and will soon comply with this arrangement and install it on T-Mobile’s phones in the US. Twilio and Vonage also support RCS, so developers can start making plans for richly formatted text messages. Neither AT&T nor Apple have committed to supporting RCS. Note, T-Mobile also struck an arrangement with Dialpad (covered below), which has a very strong Android dialer.
Space Out on Twitter: I do like Clubhouse, and we certainly need more competition in social networking, but I have serious concerns regarding how it will defend its moat-less business from the double threats of competitors and the end of the pandemic. Clubhouse definitely nailed audio conferencing during a social distancing pandemic. I wrote about this last month in 4 Reasons Why Clubhouse Will Lose Its Luster. A key point in that post is that every enterprise conferencing app offers more features and better quality than Clubhouse. Competitive variants are coming from Facebook, Telegram, Twitter, Discord, Mi Talk (Xiaomi), TikTok, Instagram, Slack, and LinkedIn.
Twitter is moving quickly with its new social audio app called Spaces and even released the Android version before Clubhouse has. I’ve managed to make it into one Twitter Space, and it sounded just like a conference call (nailed it). Unfortunately, Twitter has made it overly complicated. I can’t access it from the web or Tweetdeck or even from my iPad, only from my Android phone. That’s after finding a Space to access. Spaces are well hidden in “Fleets,” which are terribly confusing to me. Spaces are so well hidden I think they should’ve named it Speakeasy.
Twitter Spaces has been evolving very quickly (actually, at a reasonable speed, but Twitter is usually very slow). It signaled that Spaces will become available to all users in April.
The Chips Are Down: While the toilet paper shortages last spring were stressful enough, the global chip shortage is a bigger shitstorm. This is a pretty big deal impacting graphics cards, CPUs, game consoles, cars and trucks, and much more. The good news is that supply chains will eventually normalize, though the Ever Given being stuck in the Suez didn’t help.
Simply stated, the shortage is a result of the pandemic. Surprisingly, chip production doesn’t respond well to a flipped- on-and-off bit. The world hasn’t had much experience with this, but after the various global shutdowns, production doesn’t just restart. Restarting production requires a complex synchronized swim routine. Every piece of the supply chain got misaligned — including ships and containers.
The same pandemic also caused a surge in demand. Everyone needed new devices for home-based working and home entertainment. No one expected that people stuck at home would use their time to buy new cars (confession: I did). With a little creativity, you can add the trade war as a contributing factor, too.
Picked The Wrong Month to Consider Prem v Cloud: Microsoft customers were likely impacted this month regardless where they host email. Four exploits found in Microsoft’s Exchange Server software have reportedly led to over 30K US governmental and commercial organizations having their emails hacked. The vulnerabilities allowed hackers to gain access to email accounts and also gave them the ability to install malware. Krebs and Wired attribute the attack to Hafnium, a Chinese hacking group.
Microsoft 365 also had problems with a global outage on March 15 (the Ides of March). This is the biggest Teams outage since the service went down back in September. The five-hour outage ended after Microsoft rolled back a change to its authentication system. Impacted services included Microsoft Teams, Intune, Power BI, Office Licensing, Office Web Applications, Outlook.com, Exchange Online, Microsoft Forms, SharePoint Online, OneDrive for Business, Yammer, Microsoft Stream, and Xbox (game streaming, store purchases, and Party Chat).
Perhaps Michael Dell was right. “Public cloud is no more or less secured than on-premise,” said Dell, who told CRN that an organization can implement the best cybersecurity practices to create a highly secure network. “But, the things that led to a lot of these attacks are human-induced that can occur in a public cloud, can occur in a private cloud — it can occur anywhere.” Or perhaps he meant to say that wherever Microsoft is is equally problematic — on-premise or hosted.
On Content Moderation: I’ve written several times about the challenges associated with content moderation. It’s a very complex topic, but this year there’s been a lot of concern about the “unprecedented” actions social media companies took. In "Everything pundits are getting wrong about ... content moderation," @jilliancyork makes the case that many of social media’s policing actions were not unprecedented. For example, deplatforming Trump was a first for a US President but not for a political leader. Purging all those Qanon accounts was relatively small compared to the +1M ISIS accounts kicked off Twitter in 2019. AWS kicking off Parler was similar to what it did to WikiLeaks in 2010.
The Spirit of Competition: At Microsoft Ignite, Satya Nadella commented, “No customer wants to be dependent on a provider that sells them technology on one end and competes with them on the other.” The comment was aimed at Amazon AWS in the context of cloud computing infrastructure. Microsoft (and Google) are winning accounts over Amazon in some cases because Amazon competes with so many companies, especially retailers.
While Amazon competes in many sectors, Microsoft is also a feared competitor. The competitive situation in UCaaS has become particularly complex as Teams grows so quickly. UCaaS providers are scrambling to offer dumbed-down and invisible solutions for Teams, such as direct routing. For decades, enterprises had a choice between minimum viable comms solutions from Microsoft or third-party solutions that made the Microsoft Office suite better. Microsoft is emerging with comprehensive solutions “on one end” that compete with UCaaS providers “on the other.” It is particularly difficult for meetings providers as Microsoft (and Google) are now offering free and compelling video meetings.
Gartner MQ Network Services: Gartner issued its 19-provider Magic Quadrant report for Network Services. The new report has eight leaders: the same seven as last year (ATT, BT, NTT, Orange, Verizon, Vodafone, and Tata) with the addition of Lumen. The two biggest changes between years are that Lumen moved into Leaders and T-Systems’ consolidation into Deutsche Telekom dropped it from Challenger to Niche. Telefonica and Masergy are poised to make micro-moves into Leaders.
Gartner reports enterprises favor internet services with traffic prioritized over SD-WANs and connected with universal CPE. Gartner also sees Software Defined Computing Infrastructure (SDCI) gaining traction. These changes in enterprise networking are all about agility. 2020 saw some major changes in where and how we work at the same time that digital transformation initiatives are putting more importance on network agility.
Amazon Tweets Your Mama! Corporate Twitter accounts don’t need to be apolitical. Amazon has begun using its @AmazonNews account on Twitter to push back on “Amazon is evil” politicians. It tweeted that Bernie Sanders hasn’t done anything for the Vermont minimum wage and suggested Elizabeth Warren wants to break up Amazon so that it can’t criticize her. Twitter can be a very inexpensive and effective way of making one’s position clear. Link.
Social media is shockingly effective. Executives are often perplexed at how to most effectively communicate values, vision, and positions to various stakeholders. Few enterprise comms execs leverage simple, free services such as Twitter and/or LinkedIn. Follow: Stewart Butterfield, Javed Khan, Jeff Lawson, Jeff Teper, and Rowan Trollope (to name a few).
Corporations are increasingly taking a stand on political issues. Microsoft was quick to shut down political donations to Republicans who opposed certification after the January 6th riot. T-Mobile did the same, but has since resumed. Microsoft also took a strong stance against Georgia’s new election law.
Tech Modernization Fund: Congress considered Biden’s $9B request but opted instead to give $1B to the Technology Modernization Fund. Even that’s an unprecedented cash infusion that is intended to modernize government tech.
The End of Privacy: Privacy has been on the endangered list for many years now, but perhaps it was March 2021 that we can officially declare it dead. The prognosis has been bad for years. It’s hard to believe that details about Snowden’s revelations were seven years ago. We all knew that our services-for-ads deal with Google and Facebook was a deal with the devil. The more we learn about SolarWinds, the uglier it gets, and this month we discovered that numerous Exchange servers have been compromised, as were Verkada’s video surveillance customers.
A question to ponder: can an organization keep things secret if they want to? If you recall, I wrote about the EncroChat bust in the July 2020 Insider Report. This was a European comms provider that specialized in highly encrypted communications. The police were suspicious of criminal activity on EncroChat and managed to infiltrate its servers, decrypt messages, and arrest many. EncroChat is no more.
The encryption was strong, and EncroChat used an embedded Signal protocol. Signal is both a secure, encrypted messaging app and an open cryptographic protocol used by WhatsApp and others. EncroChat adapted stock Android devices with its own OS and app. It appears authorities pushed a fake/malicious update that was able to collect customer GPS information, stored messages, passwords, and other information.
Once EncroChat was cracked, those who weren’t arrested moved to a Belgium service called Sky ECC. Sky also adapted phones and had +170K in service globally, mostly in Europe. The Belgium police noticed suspected criminals had Sky cryptophones, so they set up a sting that would take two years and looked a lot like the EncroChat bust. This month, more than 1,600 Belgian police officers took part in simultaneous raids on 200 homes, arresting 48 suspects. Dutch police raided 75 homes and arrested more than 30 people.
On Netflix there’s a documentary about the college admissions scandal, and it’s composed almost entirely of re-enacted phone calls. “It’s amazing what people say when they don’t think anyone is listening,” said a federal agent. While there are few tears related to criminals getting caught, we all value privacy, and it’s becoming very hard to have secure conversations — especially on enterprise communications systems.
I am unaware of any UCaaS service that markets privacy for voice or messaging. Some enterprise apps support E2EE between clients, but how about between hard phones, or calls between hard phones and clients? How about between two softphone users on the same client, but at different companies? Even if the call did have E2EE, do users know it?
There was an uproar when Facebook threatened privacy on WhatsApp. Yet, oddly, encryption hasn’t been a big topic on enterprise calls and chats. Video encryption became a curiosity last year in video. I expect E2EE communications will become more important in enterprise communications in the near future.
Skype Again: This may be what it will take to get contact centers to embrace video. WhatsApp’s desktop app for Mac and PC now supports voice and video calling with support for E2EE on both computers and mobile devices. The functionality existed before on a limited basis; now it’s supported on all WhatsApp devices. Initially, it’s a 1:1 feature, but group calls are expected.
Starlink: SpaceX is seeking regulatory approval for “a blanket license authorizing operation” of Starlink terminals on so-called Earth Stations in Motion — an umbrella term for cars, trucks, maritime vessels, and aircraft. SpaceX’s Starlink currently serves about 10K users through an invite-only beta program and supports speeds up to 130 Mbps.
Chrome Captions: Google’s Chrome browser now supports Live Captions on videos. When enabled, Live Captions automatically appear in a small, moveable box in the bottom of your browser when you watch or listen to content with people talking. Captions will even appear with muted audio or your volume turned down. Chrome’s Live Captions works on YouTube videos, Twitch streams, podcast players, and even music streaming services like SoundCloud. The feature has been previously available to some Pixel and Samsung phones.
Leadership Changes: Fuze announced the appointment of Chris Jones as its new Chief Revenue Officer. IntelePeer announced that Chris Botting has been named as Chief Product Officer. Amritesh Chaudhuri (Amrit) joined 8x8 as EVP and CMO. Mitel appointed Arvind Raman as CISO. Talkdesk promoted Anthony Barbone to CRO, Kieran King to Chief Customer Officer, and Marco Costa (Lisbon) as International COO. AWS named Adam Selipsky as its new CEO. Selipsky spent 11 years at AWS but left to head Tableau, which Salesforce acquired in 2019. He will replace Andy Jassy who was tapped to replace Bezos as Amazon CEO. President Biden made several appointments: Clare Martorana to CIO; Tim Wu, who is credited for the term “network neutrality,” to the National Economic Council; and Lina Khan, known for her tough stance on tech companies, to the FTC.
Meetings and Messaging
Teams Updates from Ignite: Microsoft kicked off March with Ignite, its (normally fall) conference aimed at developers and IT professionals. This year, Ignite was split into spring and fall events. Teams received considerable attention at the event, and there were announcements across messaging, meetings, calling, and more. For full details see TalkingPointz Research: Teams on Fire at Ignite (for full subscribers). I think the two big announcements were E2E encryption and Teams Connect.
E2EE marks the first time that Teams users will be able to use the product without sharing content with Microsoft. It’s a relatively limited offer: 1:1 calls, requires both parties’ consent, and no browser support. It’s particularly interesting that Microsoft opted to limit the feature to paid users. (Consider: Zoom initially announced it would limit E2E encryption to paid subscribers but expanded support to all users after considerable pushback.)
Teams Connect appears to be an expanded form of intercompany chat. It’s both an upgrade and downgrade from the guest access option currently available. The upgrade: it’s a simpler, native solution that eliminates the need for separate credentials. The downgrade: it’s limited to chat, or at least does not appear to support the native core features found in Teams chats available to internal and guest users. Microsoft continues to improve and expand Teams at a rapid pace. It is pretty clear that Teams and Azure are the big priorities at Microsoft.
Webex Berlitz and Cisco Blitz: Cisco collaboration continues its fast pace of Webex updates across its entire portfolio. Since about mid 2020, the company has been announcing updates, products, services, and marketing alliances at a relentless rate. This month, there were two drops: early in the month Cisco announced free, real-time translation for Webex. The feature, in preview now with GA expected in May, translates spoken English into real-time captions of more than 100 languages. Previously, Cisco supported translation into 10 languages. I can’t list 100 languages and neither can Cisco ( I can’t find a list of languages).
Other improvements included FedRAMP updates on Webex Government, immersive share support on new devices, new noise removal capabilities added to older devices, search performance improvements, and video mesh real-time analytics in Hub.
The month ended with its Cisco Live virtual event with a major theme around facilitating hybrid workspaces. It’s a corporate wide event, but some of additional announcements from the collaboration team included focus panning, pricing changes, and an update to People Insights.
Focus panning is an improved version of speaker tracking, but the camera finds and frames the speaker regardless if he/she moves. Cisco is also dramatically lowering costs of its devices. Built-for-purpose hardware is central to Cisco’s inclusivity, meeting experience, and hybrid office strategies.
People Insights, previously based on public data, is now boosted with the Webex Graph. Webex now offers individuals insights and recommendations on their interactions and productivity. Like Microsoft, Cisco presents these insights as a tool for wellbeing, but unlike Microsoft, Cisco is avoiding privacy landmines by restricting these insights to individuals with Team and Organizational Insights planned for the future. It’s a nice balance of leveraging analytics without invading privacy.
I cover more on these “wellbeing” products below in the Engagement section. Overall, I think they are good, but like most powerful apps can also be abused. Almost every vendor offering these productivity tools is quick to recite “we believe privacy is a fundamental right.” It sounds great, but privacy is a complex topic when it comes to employee behaviors and corporate data.
Slack DMs: Slack announced Connect DMs. It’s a familiar concept: once a user accepts a contact invite, then external messaging is allowed, regardless of organizational boundaries. At one time it was Skype’s killer feature. Similar concepts exist with most consumer messaging apps — and some enterprise apps (such as Glip, Webex, and Zoom Chat).
Slack Connect allows up to 20 organizations to interact. We learned that 12M messages are shared over Slack Connect a week. That will grow even faster as the DM service can connect any Slack user to any Slack user — even the freemium freeloaders.
Slack’s natural strength has been intramural communications, but its heart is to redefine big-league business communications. Slack has been hinting at “Slack Connect DM” for some time, going back to Shared Channels and Slack Connect. The DM feature will promote Slack for many people into a primary communications app. For example, I don’t use Slack very often (nor Teams) because 100% of my interactions are external.
I like this feature, but it will complicate things. Slack continues to expand its capabilities, but it still doesn’t really replace other apps such as video meetings, email, and shared drives. Slack’s lack of E2EE will become more visible too. There’s no way to keep your DMs private from Slack or your employer.
Not all users will like this. It will facilitate improved interorganizational collaboration. However, it will also further blur the boundaries between business and personal communications. It’s one more way for your bowling buddy to make fun of last night’s gutterlooza. DMs risks making Slack noisier, when its lack of noise has been one of its biggest benefits over email.
Many times I have complained about the lack of innovation in email (and calendaring). Slack is getting more email-like, but oddly, email isn’t learning from chat. We love to poke fun at email, but that’s because it hasn’t evolved. Still, email does have some big benefits not found in team chat, such as open protocols and the ability to take your contacts with you to a different system.
Avaya Spaces: Avaya Spaces is one of those topics (like Webex and Teams) that just doesn’t fit nicely in one category in this report. It could fall into general (where I put CPaaS), Meetings and Messaging, or Customer Engagement. I generally default it to Meetings and Messaging because that’s how I use Spaces. Wherever you put it, it’s at the center of Avaya’s focus.
This month Avaya announced PSTN calling enhancements and expanded integrations, and it released the AI-based meetings features it announced previously. Spaces connects Avaya’s UC, CC, Video, and API strategies. Spaces is also central to Avaya’s “composable experiences” vision. Composable communications are the latest evolution of what started as CEBP or the API economy. They reduce infrastructure to a service or to code, facilitating silo-busting applications, deployments, and management.
While composable infrastructure isn’t particularly new, Avaya’s take is. Most of the providers talking up composable solutions poke at the “monolithic” (Avaya-like) applications of yesteryear. Avaya has updated its solutions in three important ways: Spaces blurs the boundaries of application and platform, Avaya embraced APIs in both Spaces and its “monolithic” applications, and it has embraced opex across its portfolio. What were monolithic applications are now composable microservices (APIs for both infrastructure and applications) as a service. Avaya is encouraging its customers to customize communications. It’s a fascinating transition that leverages its legacy application past into services. More on TalkingPointz.
LifeSize Connect: Lifesize Connect now allows customers to use their cloud-connected 4K Icon hardware systems as USB peripherals to connect to virtually any other conferencing app. It’s a reasonable move to add more value to their devices, but if users find they are mostly using other services, the cost of a cloud subscription will become questionable.
And the MVP in Video is…: The known facts are few. Zoom filed a lawsuit against RingCentral over its sales and promotion of Zoom video. Both companies see their alliance ending, but they disagree on how quickly to terminate their long-standing partnership. As usual, the portfolios of both companies evolved past partners to competitors.
Although both sides have their cheerleaders, it’s not a popularity contest. The dispute is over the interpretation of an unpublished contract written years ago. Curiously, the dispute seems largely immaterial to both companies. News broke mid-month when RingCentral won a request for a temporary restraining order against Zoom so that it could continue selling Zoom’s Meeting service. Later in the month, the courts granted Zoom permission to block RingCentral Meetings for customers onboarded since February. Other joint customers will be supported through the end of the contract sunset period.
There is an interesting question about the incumbent’s advantage regarding RingCentral customers using Zoom. At some point, these customers will need to decide between continuing with RingCentral telephony or Zoom video. Which is stickier? RingCentral has other potential overlaps with Avaya (ACO), Atos (Circuit), and ALE (Rainbow). Enterprise comms tends to morph, and it’s common for partners to become competitors. This could be a preview of what to expect with the long-term partnership between Zoom and Slack.
Google Workspace Equity: Cisco, Microsoft, Zoom, and now Google are promoting inclusion. Google is using the term “equity” to ensure home-based workers are not at a disadvantage. Or at least not any longer thanks to several new features announced this month. While I do agree that remote meetings can be more equitable (as everyone has an equal seat at the virtual table), I don’t agree that all commitments to equality (or inclusion) are equal.
Google announced Meet now supports a second-screen support, a tricky bridge to cross for browser-based conferencing applications. Google Calendar gets a new event type for Focus Time, which is essentially a scheduled DnD. Also, the Essentials plan now includes Google Chat, Google Calendar, and Jamboard.
Zoom SDK: Zoom released a new SDK that positions it as a CPaaS provider. The SDK is intended to facilitate the integration of Zoom functionality into third-party applications. The launch highlighted possibilities for the retail, gaming, and social sectors. Developers can begin building with just a few clicks and receive up to 10K session minutes per month. Every provider wants to be a platform. If the Zoom SDK isn’t right for you, consider the recent CPaaS offers from Microsoft, Google, RingCentral, and Avaya. Of course, about 20 others offer options, including Vonage and Twilio.
Zoom has video, telephony, and chat. It just added CPaaS. If the rumors are true about it evaluating CCaaS (and I suspect they are), that would make Zoom a highly agile quintuple-threat.
Google Tab Conferencing: Nexvoo launched an Android tablet, which doesn’t seem like compelling news, but what got my attention is the claim of being “the first Google-certified tablet for video conferencing.” It’s called the NexPad Pro, and it’s got an 8'' retina touchscreen, 4k camera, HDMI output, and a “2 element” microphone. It also features noise canceling and Play Store support. I’m an Android loyalist, but the dearth of a decent Android tablet caused me to buy an iPad. I’m hopeful that this new certified tablet signals an improvement. I’ve never heard of Nexvoo, but I’m happy to welcome a new vendor to the Android tablet party.
8x8 Jitsi Update: Team Jitsi gave us a new release this month that features a new web toolbar UI and support for virtual backgrounds. They also updated the background blur feature. It is shocking to me how rapidly virtual backgrounds moved from science fiction to widespread popularity. What started as a gimmick, turned into a basic privacy right. Personally, I prefer blurred backgrounds over virtual backgrounds.
A Few Thoughts on CC: CCaaS is rapidly changing. It was surprising when Gartner consolidated its two MQs into a single, global CCaaS MQ last year (with 13 providers!). I covered the 2020 report in the November Insider. That was ages ago (in CCaaS years) — and there were multiple CCaaS years in 2020 alone.
The pandemic was good for the cloud, and great for CCaaS. In addition to a rapid acceleration to the cloud, there are revolutionary new analytics, agent-at-home, new AI use cases, and digital channels. Contact tracing and vaccine management has significantly expanded awareness of how CPaaS can bolster the contact center. Even licensed CCs are undergoing significant changes.
I try to limit these newsletters to the past month, but let me gaze forward just a bit. It isn’t clear if CCaaS is an application or platform, but Amazon’s position right in the middle is strategic. Without data, my feeling is Amazon is breaking out. Amazon is bigger than the rest of the providers combined, and that’s going to invite some new, bigger entrants — likely Microsoft, Google, Salesforce, and Zoom.
The CCaaS sector was built by pureplays, but I expect the value of a combined provider for CC/UC will make a strong comeback. I’m also convinced there’s a huge opportunity for the web-enabled CCaaS provider to leverage Chromebooks (see related post).
Mitel v Talkdesk: Mitel and Talkdesk finally figured out that their partnership announced in 2019 was ridiculous. Mitel apparently felt a need to add a more pure CCaaS to its portfolio so became a Talkdesk reseller. It was the first such arrangement for either company (I can only vouch for about 30 years of Mitel history). The deal wasn’t particularly effective, and both companies were pretty certain the other company was the reason why. An arrangement was reached this month, and the partnership is officially over. Prior Td seats sold by Mitel and some soon to be former MiConnect CX customers will now enjoy a direct relationship with Talkdesk. Meanwhile, Mitel continues to expand its CC portfolio and opex offers.
Amazon Connect: Amazon now offers an out-of-the-box chat website UI. The widget provides a brandable UI for webchat. The widget can be embedded on a website with a code snippet. It’s available in all Amazon Connect regions. Other updates include granular metrics for measuring service levels and an improved customer profile integration between Connect and other S3 services.
64 Teams: 8x8 announced the availability of 8x8 Contact Center for Microsoft Teams. A new, certified CCaaS for Teams. The solution combines customer engagement, global telephony, direct routing, and Teams endpoints. Agents can connect and collaborate with customers as well as with other Teams-enabled experts.
Fuze Outlook: Like many other UCaaS companies, Fuze is doubling down on CCaaS. It continues to offer inContact but also built its own CCaaS for general purpose, informal, and “hidden” contact centers. A new supervisor view was designed to accommodate distributed (agent-at-home) environments. The new Your Agents View provides insights into specific actions and behaviors. There’s also a Supervisor tablet application that facilitates mobility without loss of visibility.
Observe Coaching: Observe.AI unveiled new AI-powered Agent Performance & Coaching that empowers CX leaders to make data-driven coaching decisions that impact supervisors, quality analysts, and agents. Observe provides a good example of how AI monitoring tools can be used for coaching.
The new Agent Performance and Coaching features include a real-time agent performance dashboard, coaching tags and reports, and centralized documentation. Observe claims more than 160 global brands are using it to monitor compliance and increase operational efficiency.
Talkdesk AI Trainer: Talkdesk launched Talkdesk AI Trainer, a “human-in the-loop” (HITL) approach to AI training. All AI systems must be trained, and this has been the Achilles heel of AI adoption in contact centers. The process typically requires specialized data scientists, but they don’t have a lot of time for dumb (customer) questions. Talkdesk AI Trainer allows agents with domain knowledge to improve the AI models autonomously. The goal is to get AI up and running faster, and get more automation/deflection in place more quickly. Talkdesk is taking the right/only approach by leveraging the agents to train the systems. I haven’t seen much success with AI that self-trains, so the human in HITL seems obvious.
Engage on Azure: Genesys launched Engage on Microsoft Azure. This was previously announced, and it’s very strategic. Engage on Azure allows customers to integrate customer data across contact center, Dynamics, and other Azure-hosted services, including other CRMs and applications and infrastructure. It also consolidates data for better BI, AI, and analytics. The initial infrastructure footprint covers the Americas, with expansion across Europe and Asia by the end of 2021.
Microsoft is very focused on two things: Microsoft 365 (and Teams) and Azure. If you want a strong partnership with Microsoft, you drive one or both services. Microsoft sales are incented to sell Azure workloads. Technically, this should have been fairly simple as Genesys promotes multicloud as a key feature of engage.
The bigger benefits of this arrangement take time, and that includes Genesys being positioned as a strong GTM CC partner. Microsoft incentivizes its sales professionals to sell Azure workloads, and Genesys now qualifies. Genesys reports there was pent-up demand for Azure support, and is launching the service with three major customers (and a pipeline). I do expect Microsoft will eventually build or acquire a CCaaS solution, but that won’t have a near-term impact to Genesys Engage (though it might impact the partnership with Genesys Cloud).
Free Research! Two interesting engagement reports: Twilio and a retail-focused report from Talkdesk. The Twilio report is bullish on video for customer engagements. 79% report they now use video communication with their customers. 98% report use of video communication with customers accelerated more than other channels during the pandemic. The Talkdesk report doesn’t contain any big surprises but does validate a number of assumptions, particularly around increased demand for digital channels in retail, including video chat. I’ve been predicting the contact center will “discover video this year” every year now for at least five years. Nailed it.
Chickenization of the Contact Center: The Guardian ran a post about contact center agents that are visually (webcam) monitored for home-working ‘infractions.’ “Thousands of staff at one of the world’s biggest call centre companies face being monitored by webcams to check whether they are eating, looking at their phones or leaving their desks while working from home.”
Video surveillance and video analytics are cheap, and we are going to see a lot more “intelligent” surveillance, be it Ring’s doorbells or Amazon’s total surveillance of its delivery vans.
Video is just one way to surveil employees. I’ve written about other new productivity tools that track employee keystrokes, hours, and interactions. The technology is giving us unprecedented visibility into employee productivity and work habits. Supervision is not the enemy, it’s how it’s used: carrot or stick. I like the idea of high-tech coaching. However, too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing. Surveillance can dehumanize (rhymes with euthanize) the very people we expect to best represent our brands.
I learned the term “chickenization” from Cory Doctorow, but he credits it to Christopher Leonard. Call Center Workers Pay for the Privilege is not about video surveillance but other unreasonable agent conditions at BPO Arise. Many of these contact centers are picking less crowded towns in order to become a dominant employer:
Here's chickenization: you're a chicken farmer. There is only one company that can buy your birds, thanks to market concentration. They tell you how to design and maintain your coop. They sell you the chicks. They tell you which feed to use, how much and when. …
Once your birds are grown, you bring them to the processor, who exploits their information asymmetry to figure out how to pay you JUST ENOUGH to go back to things, but not enough to get ahead. Since chickenization, poultry farmers have faced a wave of suicides. ...
The contours of chickenization are impossible to miss: it's a shifting of all the risk from the employer's side of the balance sheet to the workers', using the fiction of independent contractorship, the data-gathering capabilities of digital work, and monopolies.
Dialpad WFX: T-Mobile announced a new work-from-anywhere (WFX) initiative that includes T-Mobile Enterprise Unlimited, T-Mobile Home Office Internet, and T-Mobile Collaborate. The new unlimited plans are 4G/5G plans targeted at businesses. The Office Internet is a 5G-connected Wi-Fi appliance that provides home-based employees a dedicated, business grade network. Collaborate is a new UCaaS offer powered by Dialpad.
T-Mobile joins Verizon and AT&T in expanding its wireless offers with UCaaS. The timing is just right, as the whole topic of UCaaS mobility disappeared during the pandemic. The Collaborate offer is being positioned as a full legacy phone system replacement that supports voice and video conferencing. It’s the full Dialpad offer, which includes AI-based services such as transcription (calls and meetings) and integration with apps such as Microsoft 365 and Google Workspace. It’s a big deal for both T-Mobile and Dialpad. Notably, within the announcement we learned that T-Mobile made a significant investment in Dialpad. I wrote more details in this NoJitter post.
Teams Updates from Ignite: Teams UCaaS received a number of enhancements at Microsoft Ignite; see this TalkingPointz Research: Teams on Fire at Ignite (for full subscribers) for more coverage. A variety of other announcements included features, devices, expanded UCaaS geographies, new ways providers can participate, and more.
Direct Routing call minutes in Teams have grown eightfold, and more than four times as many organizations are using Direct Routing to enable PSTN calling in Teams. Also, Microsoft announced that Teams users placed over 650 million calls in October, up elevenfold from just a few months earlier in March 2020.
Calling was significantly expanded in two important ways: Teams Calling expanded into new markets, and Operator Connect is a new alternative for BYO carrier. Microsoft announced eight new markets (bringing the total to 24) for Teams Calling. This was a surprise as Teams has been slow to expand, and carrier-provided Direct Routing has been very popular. Operator Connect is a new integration option for carrier-provided services. It’s similar to Direct Routing (managed and Teams-controlled experience). Here, the carrier partner provides and manages the SBC. There’s also an option for carrier-provided dial-in lines for conferencing.
Zoom Phone Power: Zoom released a Power Pack add-on for Zoom Phone. It’s a new panel with visibility to lines, controls, contacts, and more. It also enables admins, and queue members to leverage real-time analytics and historical reports. And Zoom added some phone-centric features to the regular client, including copy/paste support of phone numbers. Zoom admins can now assign multiple phone numbers to a user.
Jabra: The cheap models for home users continue with the new Evolve2 30 headset for about $100. The Evolve 2 range is specifically designed for “the modern flexible worker.” I get that mobile workers have different requirements than desk-based workers, but I am not sure what unique requirements home-based or flexible workers have.
30,000,000: This month Poly sold its 30 millionth IP phone. I believe Polycom and Broadsoft were instrumental in the development of interoperable SIP. Back in the early days of hosted PBX, few of the providers made their own endpoints. Poly got into the space early and defined the sector with great products.
There was a time when I figured open SIP endpoints would dominate the sector, but proprietary endpoints have endured surprisingly well. Microsoft launched LCS in 2003 and is just now getting around to supporting open SIP phones (on Teams). Today, both open and proprietary endpoints are more threatened by softphones than each other.
LogMeIn announced several minor updates and a new Teams Direct Routing option called GoToConnect. New Work-from-Anywhere bundles combine LastPass, GoToWebinar, GoToRoom and GoToAssist with GoToConnect. Bold 360 is now available from Genesys (see Acquisitions below).
Fuze Outlook: Fuze hosted its Outlook 21 virtual event. Key themes driving the company are verticals (manufacturing and retail) and UC+CC (covered in Engagement). The manufacturing vertical features DECT phone support and integrations to Salesforce, ServiceNow, and others. Fuze offers improved interop by integrating third-party meeting links directly within its client. It also added support for immersive screen share. Fuze also announced partnerships with BigMarker for webinars and events, and Envision for quality monitoring. Fuze remains an outlier with its exclusive focus on larger, enterprise accounts.
Cisco Calling: Cisco revealed that Webex Calling is supporting 6B calls per month and now has 1.4M pure cloud calling seats. Many of its announcements are intended to facilitate premises-based to cloud migrations as well as expanded support of mixed deployments and hybrid working. This includes support for centralized enterprise dial plans, call routing options across platforms, new calling analytics in Control Hub, DECT endpoint support on Webex Calling, on-demand recording, and more. Cisco is making a significant transition from premises-based to cloud. Cisco is taking BYOC to a new level with a new streamlined purchasing experience coming to Cisco.com in April. This will immediately give more share to Cisco as most analysts don’t attribute partner-hosted seats toward Cisco.
Switchvox Updates: Sangoma announced a series of updates to its Switchvox solution including a new mobile client that supports BLF and call recording, a new desktop softphone, and native support for SMS with Switchvox Cloud. I’ve lost track of Switchvox, but it was one of my favorite small business solutions back when it was a standalone company. It was acquired by Digium in 2007, and then Sangoma acquired Digium in 2019.
Speaking of which, Sangoma announced its acquisition of Star2Star completed this month. This gives Sangoma one of the broadest portfolios in the industry and likely makes it a global top 10 communications and collaboration provider. CEO Bill Wignall will be a guest on the TalkingHeadz podcast in April.
Rainbow Office: RingCentral and ALE announced the launch of Rainbow Office, powered by RingCentral. The partnership and product was announced last August, and will be available in eight European countries including Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands.
Stream raised $38M: The app facilitates embedded chat and activity streams. Currently, its customers integrate third-party chatbots and use Dolby for video and audio within Stream. This Series B round was just six months after its Series A round of $15M.
Telegram revealed it raised $150M by selling 5-year pre-IPO convertible bonds. Investors were not disclosed.
Staffbase raised $145M: Founded in 2014, Staffbase provides employers with a suite of communications tools, including an employee app and internal newsletter and intranet platforms, and is in use by over 8M people worldwide. (Customers include Audi, Ikea, Johns Hopkins University, and Volvo.) It has 450 employees in 11 locations. Staffbase recently merged with Canada’s internal comms provider Bananatag.
Uniphore Series D: Uniphore provides AI-based analytics of customer support calls. It raised $140M to expand its services into video calls and other services. Uniphore targets cloud customers of Salesforce and Oracle, and reported that it tripled sales last year. It has now raised a total $210M.
Genesys and Bold360: Genesys announced intent to acquire Bold360 from LogMeIn to improve its digital customer engagement capabilities. First off, digital channels are a requirement. Every company is using chat, SMS, and/or social and expanding it. There are multiple ways organizations can implement or build digital channels, but the CC provider is a logical option. LogMeIn doesn’t have a CC (nor any synergistic business units). No terms were disclosed, but valuations are a bit ridiculous now (especially in CC), so it probably wasn’t cheap. That said, Genesys claims it had a great year and can probably do more with Bold360 than LogMeIn could. Genesys claims Bold360 does not replace anything it is currently using, and claims that it and Bold 360 share many common customers — which doesn’t say much for its prior/current digital offering.
The acquisition is similar to Cisco acquiring IMImobile. Both companies want to own this technology. IMImobile appears to be a more comprehensive offer. CIsco intends to use IMI with its CC offers, as a standalone digital service, and as an enterprise CPaaS. NICE inContact acquired Brand Embassy in 2019. Talkdesk then moved from Brand Embassy to IMImobile … to be continued.
ServiceNow and Intellibot: ServiceNow announced it is acquiring Intellibot, an RPA startup. RPA provides a way to automate a set of legacy processes, which often involve humans dealing with mundane, repetitive work. This is one more in a streak of ServiceNow acquisitions that have included Element AI, Loom Systems, Passage AI, and Sweagle.
Rogers and Shaw: Rogers Communications agreed to buy rival Shaw Communications in a $16B deal. If the Canuks approve it, it will shake up Canada’s communications. This would be one of the biggest deals ever in the Canadian telecom industry, making Rogers the largest wireless provider with 10.9M subscribers. The Canadian government, just like the US government, wants more competition in wireless, but hell, all bets are off after T-Mobile and Sprint. Canada has tried to develop a viable fourth player, so maybe Dish will expand north.
Yum! and Tictuk: All companies use communications, but most don’t think of themselves as communications companies — though that’s changing as comms disrupts business models. Case in point: Yum! Brands acquired Tictuk with the goal of simplifying ordering for its KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and The Habit Burger Grill restaurants
Tictuk specializes in conversational commerce and connects brands to channels including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, SMS, QR codes, and email. It blends chat, web, advertisements, and intelligent marketing technology that integrates with POS and payment systems. Tictuk will continue to offer its platform to current clients as a unit of Yum!
You could say Yum! has an omnivore appetite. Earlier this month, it also agreed to acquire Kvantum, an AI-powered consumer insights and marketing company. Yum! expects customers to continue with their pandemic-fueled behavioral changes such as online ordering and delivery services.
Tech Data and Synnex: Tech Data entered into a definitive $7.2B agreement to merge with Synnex. The combined company will have $57B in revenue, 22K employees, +150K customers, and 1,500 vendors and will do business in +100 countries across Americas, APAC, and Europe. Industry consolidation doesn’t just apply to OEMs, but VARs and distributors too. Distributors are being squeezed between cloud-delivered services that require less hardware and ecommerce competitors. I expect this new company will acquire another before the end of the year.
Onecom and 9 Group: Presumably this merger makes 10. Onecom (UK) has added thousands of fixed line and cloud customers and hundreds of channel partners to its portfolio in a deal with 9 Group. It was Onecom’s second acquisition in less than a month. A PE firm invested £100m in Onecom in 2019.
Crexendo and NetSapiens: Crexendo intends to acquire NetSapiens for $50M. NetSapiens claims it supports 1.7M users (both subscribers and purchase customers) on its platform through a community of partners.
RingCentral and Kindite: RingCentral acquired Kindite, a cloud encryption startup. Its security capabilities will be integrated into RingCentral’s platform. Kindite’s platform offers cryptographic key orchestration. My guess is we will see this first for E2EE in video.
Bravo and Calabrio: Thoma Bravo PE will acquire Calabrio from KKR investments for an undisclosed price (estimated around $1B). Calabrio provides products and services to help companies streamline workforce engagement. Its Minneapolis leadership team is expected to remain.
The legacy WEM industry is under considerable pressure as the market migrates from an add-on for premises-based contact centers to an included service with CCaaS. Calabrio now describes itself as a “cloud-first”provider. A large premises-based CC market remains, but it’s not growing.
It’s a reasonable play for Bravo PE as WEM will continue to consolidate and grow. The buyers of WEM providers are consolidation plays (Calabrio acquired Teleopti in 2019) and CCaaS providers. I’m sure some of the major premises-based vendors such as Cisco considered acquiring Calabrio, but probably opted to wait for (or build) a cloud-native solution.
MessageBird Expands into Video: Dutch CPaaS MessageBird acquired 24sessions and Hull. Both facilitate an expansion into clientless video services. The CEO indicated the acquisitions cost more than half of the $200M it recently raised. In December, MessageBird acquired Pusher (UK) for $35M. 24sessions added about 45 employees, and Hull added 14, giving MessageBird about 500 employees. The company expects to have an IPO this year.
MAYBE Microsoft and Discord: I don’t typically include rumors, but this one seems exception-worthy. The WSJ reported that Microsoft is in advanced talks to acquire Discord for +$10B. The consumer app offers voice, text, and video chat. It initially appealed primarily to gamers but has expanded to a broader consumer base. It’s a curious acquisition. The logic is that it can use its dominance to acquire businesses. Chat apps are hot, and Discord could complement the Xbox business. However, we’ve been here before when Microsoft acquired Skype for $8.5B in 2011 and then yielded consumer chat leadership to Facebook (Messenger and WhatsApp), Apple, Line, and many others.
This Month’s Goodreads
- Enterprise chat is splashy, but email keeps on kicking
- The US Definition of ‘Broadband’ Is a Joke
- Twitter is ReInventing Itself
- Office App Makers Cashing In on Pandemic Safety Needs
- Democrats are gearing up to fight for net neutrality
- A new type of supply-chain attack with serious consequences is flourishing
- Were the Airline Bailouts Really Needed?
- Data Can’t Decide When the Pandemic Is Over
- AT&T Cries About Having to Play Fair Under New Net Neutrality Law
- Everything pundits are getting wrong about this current moment in content moderation
- The Best Team Messaging App Is Slack
- Workplace from Facebook: 'We're shifting direct accounts to our partners'
- Microsoft CEO Hunts Anew for Creator Hub After TikTok Bid Fails
- Cloud Services Reach $130B, Dwarfs Data Center Spending
- Remote Work Is Here to Stay
- AT&T lobbies against nationwide fiber, says 10Mbps uploads are good enough
The TalkingHeadz Podcasts are interviews with the movers and shakers of enterprise communications — plus we have some interesting guests. Subscribe on your favorite podcast app. The two interviews of March:
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