Notes from ITExpo: VoIP at 20 and Why the Best is Yet to Come for UC
When writing about UC, it’s easy to forget what came before. We live in a world today where IP communications is the norm, PSTN is a relic, and mobile broadband is displacing all forms of landline telephony. The world looked very different 20 years ago, and for the younger generation it’s hard to imagine how we got here.
The ongoing pace of change in technology is a given, but there very much was a time when the opposite was true. As this post unfolds, the relevance of this to UC will become clear. Before VoIP, there was the PSTN, and it’s still with us today. This was – and remains – the gold standard for telephony, but in terms of innovation, it has remained static for decades. When you think about how quickly and extensively technology trends evolve, this seems inconceivable, but that’s the history.
Speaking of history, this brings me to the gist of my post. This week I’m attending TMC’s ITExpo conference, an event I’ve been involved with for many years. When VoIP was at its height about 10 years ago, ITExpo competed intensely with VON for leadership in this very disruptive space. Most will agree that VON won that battle, but ITExpo won the war by virtue of still being here while VON has been gone for ages.
This matters naught today, but there are important lessons to be learned here, and that was evident from a unique panel held on Wednesday. TMC wisely chose to commemorate the 20th anniversary of VoIP’s commercial deployment with a session comprised of VoIP pioneers and innovators. This was a rare gathering of VoIP luminaries who may never share the stage again, so those in attendance truly got to hear about its legacy from the source.
TMC’s CEO Rich Tehrani falls into that group, but for this session he served as the moderator asking the questions rather than answering them. The panel itself was drawn from a who’s-who from the early days of VoIP, namely Jeff Pulver, Alon Cohen, Craig Walker, Andy Abramson, Danny Windham, Mike Tribolet and Andy Voss. By design, I’m not saying anything more about the speakers; if you don’t know them, then you should do some basic research before continuing with my post.
What’s the deal with VoIP?
Today, we take VoIP for granted, and in UC circles, it’s easy to assume VoIP is the default mode for telephony. After all, VoIP is the foundation and primary application for all UC offerings. There is no UC without VoIP, and that connection is important in understanding why UC has not yet become the standard communications platform for all businesses.
Even after hitting the 20-year mark, VoIP’s market share remains in the single digits or low double digits depending on the metrics. As disruptive as VoIP was back then, adoption was slow for a multitude of reasons, and barriers still remain. Compare this to how quickly we have embraced innovations such as the iPhone, the iPad, social media and messaging, and it’s clear that not all new technologies diffuse at the same rate.
This point was actually illustrated effectively by Mitel’s CEO, Rich McBee, during his keynote earlier that morning. He cited some great examples that everyone can relate to, starting with the push button phone, which was introduced way back in 1942. Also cited were the Dick Tracy wrist radio from 1931, and the first handheld mobile phone from 1984. All of these took decades to mature into products that were easy-to-use and delivered breakthrough utility that had mass appeal.
The main message here for UC is that vendors must be patient, as demand can take much longer than expected to materialize. While the rapid adoption of innovations such as Android or tablets are impressive, they are not the norm, and most innovations take much longer to bear fruit.
VoIP’s history provides deeper insight due to its disruptive nature. As the panelists rightly noted, when VoIP showed flashes of its commercial potential, incumbents took notice and put VoIP on notice as being an unwelcome threat. Following the historic breakup of AT&T in 1984, U.S. telcos were reduced from being a monopoly to an oligarchy. Their market power was no longer absolute, but it remained dominant enough to keep the barriers to entry high.
Initially, VoIP was a PC-to-PC application and had more appeal as a novelty than a bona fide voice channel. As soon as VoIP progressed to replicate landline telephony, incumbents took many steps to crush it, using both market-based means as well as regulatory measures designed to protect the status quo. Ultimately, their efforts failed, and as VoIP continued to innovate – and mature – its value became so compelling that incumbents have now been completely won over.
This incredible transformation has taken 20 years, and anyone who has lived through it will agree that VoIP’s pioneers were right and that we’re all indebted to their perseverance along with their commitment to innovation as a driving force for positive change.
What does this mean for UC?
UC has not needed to fight VoIP’s battles, mainly because UC isn’t displacing anything that is well entrenched. As such, I would say that UC vendors to date lack the same sense of purpose, and this may explain why the value proposition remains a moving target. Everybody knows what VoIP is, but UC is harder to define.
There is little doubt that UC has great utility, but to be fair it is often overshadowed by more powerful trends – namely mobile broadband and the cloud – around which UC must adapt. While VoIP has only ever needed to worry about telephony, this is just one of many modes that UC seeks to integrate to create a new experience for driving productivity.
In that regard, UC faces more complex challenges, and while traction has lagged expectations, we must keep in mind that UC has been at it far less time than VoIP. Losing faith in UC now would be premature, and if the pioneers we heard from on the panel had done that, VoIP would have been long gone and we’d still be paying outrageous fees to make phone calls.
Thankfully that didn’t happen, and a strong take away from the panel was the view that even 20 years on, it’s still early innings for VoIP. Technology transitions take a long time, and VoIP remains a blip on the world telephony stage. With so much unrealized potential lying ahead, the future is still bright for VoIP, and by extension UC isn’t even out of the first inning yet. There is much re-invention and re-imagining yet to come, and as long as the spirit for innovation and entrepreneurship remains strong, UC will get there. The panelists felt strongly that the best lies ahead for VoIP, and given their accomplishments, I wouldn’t bet against them. I’m not exactly sure who their peers would be for UC, but I wouldn’t bet against them either.