2013 was a Reboot Year
2013 was not a great year for UC. It had its moments, but as a whole the industry didn’t make many leaps. Let me recap the year from a buzzword perspective.
WebRTC: The good news for the WebRTC advocates is they can reuse posts that proclaim “WebRTC will be big next year.” The giant disruption got held up in committee, when the IETF took a page from the Congressional Handbook on compromise and shutdown its progress. WebRTC applications continue to increase in quantity and scope, and there’s a sound argument to go ahead and engage, but the magic really happens after broad support. Two of the largest web browser providers have yet to show any interest in WebRTC. Without broad support, it’s really not much different than existing plugins.
Federation: Federation, like UC itself, is another term that means different things to different people. For some, it’s all about presence, others video, others still expect voice, presence, and video support. The best example of federation remains the phone number - imagine being able to connect to anyone by simply dialing their number. Unfortunately, the promise of rich UC federation between organizations largely remains a fantasy. Inter-organizational HD audio is still the exception. Presence took a step backwards when Google dropped support of XMPP. Oddly, most federation examples are for like-to-like systems. This is progress? Even worse, not all UC vendors even support that. There is hope, several younger firms intend to thrive in this dubious gap.
Cloud: This term casts a big shadow. Every vendor has a cloud strategy. What changed? Not much - all of the premises vendors support some degree of virtualization (sometimes on dedicated hardware?), and that makes them cloud savvy. In terms of UCaaS, it’s a different story. For premises-based vendors to become cloud providers means a radical shift in business model. What isn’t so compelling is simply repackaging the same boxes and licenses that were sold to enterprises for providers. If anything, 2013 was a step backwards thanks to the NSA which killed the wind in cloud sails (or is that sales?)
Vision: It feels like most of the industry put up the “Pardon Our Dust” sign as so many vendors completely reorganized all or key parts of their leadership teams. There were probably more UC management shuffles in 2013 than any other year. When the leadership changes, the vision often changes as well. See related.
Contact Center: The good news is strong contact center technologies are becoming more accessible. Centers of all sizes have access to some powerful technology both on-premises and as a hosted service. The problem is reasonable contact center deployments and/or sincere concern for the customer experience remains the exception. I understand the technology changes are impressive, but as far as I can tell from the business I call - it’s still 1999. In fact, More times than not I still have to enter my account number as well as state it to the agent. Very few sites have contextual capabilities, and even fewer offer virtual-hold. In a recent report on the 15 most frustrating firms, four of them are telecommunication firms and two of those (AT&T and CenturyLink) sell contact center solutions.
Video: Polycom got a new CEO. LifeSize got an old CEO. Cisco got a new Collaboration leader (technically in Q4-12) with several changes in 2013. Vidyo and Blue Jeans got new CMOs. Vidtel was clandestinely acquired. Lots of talk about 1080p, yet I still can’t buy a USB 3.0 webcam (1080p exceeds USB 2.0 speeds). Microsoft shook things up with its new LRS solution, but one partner dropped out and the other took nearly the whole year to release an upgraded webcam.
Mobility: The darling topic of 2012 was pretty uneventful in 2013. Apple’s iOS 7 rocked - or more accurately got people seasick. The new, high-end smartphones were pretty dull from Apple, Samsung, and Motorola. Microsoft wrote-off nearly a billion on the Surface, and who knows how much after its Christmas marketing rush. HTC is making great products, but nearly bankrupt. Even the vultures are losing interest in the remaining value of Blackberry. Microsoft poisoned partnerships by buying struggling Nokia. The BYOD revolutionaries woke-up to the hangover of a new monthly expense (iPay).
Innovation: The UC industry is on an innovation diet. Sure there were plenty of faster and cheaper announcements, some very impressive imitations, but very few new ideas in 2013. ShoreTel launched its first SIP phone, Mitel relaunched its first SIP-only endpoint, Cisco launched its Polycom Eagle Eye. ALU launched YouTube, and Avaya discovered SMS. The most exciting announcement was Unify’s teaser video of something that might exist in the future.
Strategic Significance: UC slipped off Gartner’s Hype Cycle report in 2010. Today, CIOs are interested in topics such as Big Data, Analytics, 3D printing, and the Internet of Things. The term “collaboration” is being co-opted by content sharing firms such as Box, DropBox, Evernote, and Citrix. Communications remain mission critical, yet oddly less important.
It wasn’t just UC, 2013 was a tough year across technology. The Feds couldn’t manage its health care site, Apple lost its sizzle, Google killed Reader, Yahoo failed miserably with its upgrade to email, and Apple’s big improvement in security using a fingerprint scanner was cracked in two days. The only significant improvement, at least for me, is I can now read an ebook during takeoff.
I know there was some big improvements in the various offers at the vendor level, but as an industry it seemed pretty flat.
Despite all this, I’m actually steadfastly optimistic about UC. It may not be top of mind, but few companies are living without it. The popular debate is hard phone vs. softphone, not no phone. Presence has moved from killer app to table stakes. Video seems to be moving into the realm of the expected.
To be fair, it might just be me. Sometimes I am unfairly accused of being a curmudgeon, so please let me know if I missed something via the comments. Perhaps we are entering a phase of deceleration. It might be necessary as we prepare for the next big leap. Our industry has a firm grasp on the past. For example, the telephone’s form factor really hasn’t changed in 50 years despite the change of everything around and inside it. Perhaps the next big changes are not in what we hold to the ear, but what’s in between them.
I agree with my associate Steve Leaden when he suggests we are moving into the next generation of UC, including “device awareness, powerful search tools, geo-location presence, rich context including integrations... and most importantly identical user experience across multiple devices.” Perhaps 2013 was the calm before the storm of 2014.