UCIF -- Important Steps Forward, But Learn From History
The announcement of the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum (UCIF) is a welcome step to help address a critical need of the emerging UC marketplace. Other articles and commentary here on the www.UCStrategies.com website will be providing more information about this important development. You can also visit www.ucif.org, the official website of this new organization.
Over the years, I have been involved in the creation, early development, or activities of several groups that have had similar charters in their respective industries – AMIS (Audio Messaging Interchange Specification) and VPIM (Voice Profile for Internet Mail) for interoperability of voicemail systems; and ECTF (Enterprise Computer Telephony Forum) for computer-telephony integration.
Some patterns of success and failure in such organizations have become apparent. Here are three of the necessary elements for success: open membership; appropriate charter; and member commitment.
Open Membership. To succeed, UCIF must attract membership from a broad spectrum of industry suppliers whose products and services would benefit by conformance to guidelines. The challenge is that we are already seeing different protocols and standards emerging that govern the interoperability of endpoints and servers, and one server to another. More importantly, there is disagreement among the vendors about the conceptual architecture for interoperability. For presence information, for example, will this be a peer-to-peer, two-way interchange of information? Or the concept of a central system with open APIs for providing and receiving information on request? And, to what degree will the architecture envision a single presence server, or a network of presence aggregators? These kinds of differences must be bridged, and failure to have an open environment to accommodate divergent views will hamper achieving UCIF goals.
The early, announced membership of UCIF includes a number of companies in the Microsoft ecosystem. What’s missing at this initial launch is most of the legacy telephony suppliers and IBM and many members of its ecosystem. In this, there is an uncanny parallel to the early meetings of the ECTF. In fact, some of the members of that founding group are members of this one, too. There were challenges in those days to make the ECTF truly open to differing points of view, so that other suppliers of CTI solutions would join. Eventually, much of this was overcome at ECTF, but there were early issues about who could be on the Board and key committees. I understand that with UCIF there was a broadly distributed invitation list, and that many others are considering joining. Let's be sure this time that there are seats in the inner circle for participants with divergent views.
To reach its full potential, the UCIF will eventually have to reach out to a different group of suppliers – the business applications suite developers. Interoperability will have to extend to those seeking to embed communications capabilities into application suites. This is one of the best opportunities for long-term, high-yield payoffs from enterprise deployment of UC. It is important that we avoid one of the early challenges of CTI, in which lack of standards and implementation guidelines meant that developers had to write different interfaces for each pairing of equipment encountered.
Appropriate Charter. UCIF needs an appropriate charter and focus for the goals and activities of the group. This is an essential precursor to attracting the broad base of membership necessary for this organization to achieve full success. My feeling is that UCIF is off to a good start in this area. They are correctly not setting themselves up to develop standards (the IETF has been moving that ball, albeit slowly at times), but they will be encouraging the use of those standards, and facilitating interoperability testing and certification. Test and certify are key steps both in providing a mechanism to speed development of all components of a UC solution from different suppliers, and in assuring purchasers that the gear they buy will perform as designed.
The charter seems to be comprehensive yet appropriately focused. Here’s the language of the mission statement:
"The Unified Communications Interoperability Forum (UCIF) is a non-profit alliance of worldwide communications technology leaders working together to realize the potential of unified communications (UC) by increasing efficiency, decreasing implementation costs and improving the interoperability experience for UC customers. The UCIF’s vision is to enable interoperability of open, standards-based UC hardware and software across enterprises, service providers, and consumer clouds, as a means of generating incremental business opportunity for all stakeholders in the ecosystem and of increasing the business use of UC technologies and services. The UCIF creates and tests interoperability profiles, implementation guidelines and best practices for interoperability between UC products and existing communications and business applications."
Well done. The only somewhat surprising addition to this comes in the following answer to a FAQ on their website: “UCIF members will collaborate to deliver a reliable and rich UC interoperability experience, initially focused on video, through defined interoperability programs.” While video is certainly an important part of the overall UC palette, it’s not clear to me why this particular interaction should be the early focus. In addition, over time I feel that the mission statement should be expanded to incorporate explicitly the kinds of UC interactions with business software suites that will be increasingly important in the future.
Member Commitment. There is a fundamental dichotomy and tension between groups seeking to establish interoperability and the perceived short-term self interest of individual suppliers. Proprietary methods, especially for market leaders, tend to fend off challenges from upstart suppliers. Therefore, there is a (sometimes well-disguised) tendency for foot-dragging on things like standards and openness. Arguments about “rising tides raising all boats” and “expanding the total pie” make logical sense in the long term, but are fraught with uncertainty, lead to changing dynamics in the market (consider commoditization following Group II fax adoption), and worry leaders about a possible near-term revenue hit.
Again, history is illuminating. AMIS and VPIM networking standards were an attempt to get voicemail systems to intercommunicate. Yes, they worked, but clumsily and with a lot of administration and overhead. When the email industry abandoned its proprietary islands (that still existed after AMIS Analog was developed) and established world-wide, open interoperability, email roared past voicemail as the preferred non-simultaneous communications method.
There were other things that happened to voicemail, of course, beyond the networking challenges. Users didn’t understand it as a new method of communications (think of it as “verbal email”). Instead, it was quickly sold primarily as a telephone answering machine replacement. But the fact that a VM system was deployed as an island, not very well connected to VM systems in other parts of the enterprise, eventually relegated it to a minor role in enterprise communications.
I think there is a lesson here. We have some similar challenges in unified communications. The “simple” applications of UC (analogous to VM telephone answering) are to improve the efficiency of an individual’s communication abilities. Mouse-over a name, check presence, right-click to communicate. The more complex applications (analogous to verbal email) require interworking between business application software, communications systems, presence status and rules across a multi-location environment, and much more. These kinds of applications, the ones that deliver the highest value and the greatest ROI, absolutely require robust interoperability.
That is why Member Commitment is so key to realizing the vision of the UCIF. If this organization falls into the same traps and bickering that plagued AMIS, VPIM, and other similar attempts, then it is clear that unified communications will never reach its full promise.
I congratulate the members of UCIF for taking this visionary step to create this organization. This is a critical ingredient, if done correctly, to realize UC’s potential. I urge other suppliers in the industry to get on board quickly. And I trust that we will all have learned from past mistakes in similar ventures, and will jointly commit to doing it right this time.
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