Restarting the Conversation
I get so wrapped up in the current conversation about unified communications, collaboration, and transformation, that sometimes it is a good idea to reset and allow newcomers to join.
Everything is changing and everyone is confused (though not everyone will admit it). In the days of yore, telecom was pretty stable. It is far more than just the technology that is shifting. The rules, roles, attitudes, business models, expectations, and vocabulary are changing as well.
Ten years ago, anyone in telecom could easily define terms such as carrier, PBX, distributor, and telephone. Consider carrier – we had companies like AT&T, Sprint, MCI – perhaps we didn’t understand how they did it, but we understood what they did, how to compare them, and what to expect from them. Today few agree on something as simple as that. Is a service provider of hosted voice a carrier? How about Skype? How about Google Voice? Which are subject to compliance with government regulation or wiretapping (CALEA) rules? Are SLAs a requirement or an assumption? Do we pay carriers in advance or expect usage billing? Comparing providers is becoming a difficult task as each new solution seems to come with a new set of exceptions. Terminology and even solutions are now much more a part of the question than the answer.
Now, let’s bring the problem a little closer to home – enterprise communications systems. Although no one ever really liked the “PBX,” it was a fairly well understood model. They all did basically the same thing, and if one vendor had some new revolutionary feature (say voicemail) it was just a matter of time until the others caught-up. Side-by-side evaluations were mostly an exercise of determining preferences, much like comparing Fords to Chevys. I don’t mean to trivialize this, but overall the similarities outweighed the differences.
With the PBX, enterprise customers evaluated administrative interfaces, endpoints, (local) dealers, and some of advanced features such as contact center functionality. The technology was reasonably mature, so we didn’t concern ourselves with matters like carrier compatibility, endpoint reliability, or call quality. Price, or more accurately what was included and what was extra (packaging), was critical to the evaluation.
But that was then. Today, no vendor in their right mind markets a “PBX,” and it isn’t just marketing hype that’s changed. The point is the era of the miniature mainframe with its dedicated wiring and dumb terminals (phones) is over. Today, the communications infrastructure needs to be more versatile. It has to play with other forms of communications, including desktop computers, mobile phones, and IP shared infrastructure. We expect these systems to serve remote users with equal ease as local users, and we expect it to handle multiple modalities including voice, video, and messaging. The solution must interface directly with all kinds of systems including directories and email.
There is no stake in the ground regarding the solution. Phones can be hard or soft, wired or wireless. Servers can be local, remote, physical or virtual, the UC solution (voice, IM, video, messaging) can come from one or multiple vendors. It can be a product or a service. It can be local or national. All these variables have created huge differences among brands and solutions. The channel partner may be down the street or thousands of miles away.
Unfortunately, there is no clear term to capture this functionality. Unified Communications isn’t particularly unified, but it is multi-modal. It’s about the new technologies and use cases of real time communications. The term collaboration puts more focus on the result rather than the technology.
Business communications are in state of flux unlike ever before. That’s why we call it transformation. What it is transforming to is becoming more clear as the major vendors are beginning to settle on the scope of a UC solution. The big current themes are mobility, cloud, and interoperation.