Unify and Circuit Redux

Unify and Circuit Redux

By Jon Arnold January 29, 2016 Leave a Comment
Jon Arnold 2014
Unify and Circuit Redux by Jon Arnold

While it’s true you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, some things are better the second time around. I’m not alone in feeling that way, and following Unify’s recent analyst/consultant conference, that ground has been ably covered by fellow UC Experts Blair Pleasant and Phil Edholm. Their views were further amplified on our latest podcast, where everyone got into the act, including a few who weren’t at the conference but still follow Unify closely.

In short, Unify has righted the ship nicely, with Dean Douglas and his team taking a focused, disciplined approach over the past year. The company is in good shape and the value propositions for both OpenScape and Circuit are updated, refined and bearing fruit. It remains to be seen if they are ultimately in good hands now that the Atos deal has closed, but we got a solid update on that at the conference, and the synergies do seem strong.

For this post, I want to focus solely on Circuit for two reasons. First, it’s very relevant to the UC&C space, and second, it gives me an opportunity to bridge insights from the two conferences I just attended back-to-back. The Unify conference gave us a deep dive on Circuit, and following that was ITExpo, where I moderated a panel session comparing/clarifying collaboration and communications. It’s easy to lump the former into discussions around UC, but they really are different, and as collaboration solutions come into their own, it’s time to recognize that.

Circuit, Circa 2016 – New, Improved and Productized

In that regard, Unify’s second act has come at the right time. Their initial launch of Circuit in late 2014 met with mixed reviews – including mine – and in this case, being first to market among major UC vendors didn’t yield any beachhead advantages. While the concept was new – even for our crowd – it was not fully formed or intuitive enough to quash the wave we hadn’t yet seen coming from the likes of Slack. With today’s technologies, the collaboration opportunity is ripe for innovation, and this new crop of disruptors simply read the tea leaves better than the UC vendors.

In fact, they really don’t see themselves as disruptive – these companies have simply discarded tools that don’t work for a certain set of needs and replaced them with ones that do in a way that digital natives intuitively understand. In that context, it’s no surprise to see rapid traction, followed by a spate of new messaging-based platforms that have morphed into collaboration solutions. Circuit may have gotten there first, but Unify’s customers weren’t ready for it, and many in fact joined the ranks of non-Unify customers in adopting collaboration platforms like Slack.

Imitation is the best form of flattery, and while I can’t say if Unify lifted a page out of Slack’s playbook, it’s clear that they have taken some cues from them and it’s hard not to like 2016’s Circuit. Of course, all these platforms get better as they learn what customers really want, but what I most like this time around is how well Unify had productized Circuit. Instead of the initial pitch for Circuit being a cool, fun Millennial-friendly experience and the open-ended New Way to Work, it’s now packaged as a SaaS solution. Today, Circuit is targeted at the enterprise IT buyer with five distinct offerings – two are free and three are paid.

Each package has a progressively richer feature set and scale that’s needed for larger deployments. The value proposition for each is clearly defined, making it much easier for IT buyers – and channels – to right-size their spend on a collaboration solution. This is how successful on-demand SaaS offerings are sold – easy to understand, deploy, buy and to consume. Slack understands this in spades, and their four tiers of products are packaged very similarly to Circuit’s five offerings.

Why Circuits Stands Out

You may say well, this is a good step, and it puts them on par with Slack and their ilk. Fair enough, but that’s where the comparisons need to stop. Circuit cannot match Slack in terms of supporting an endless stream of partner integrations, but that’s not where the true value lies for Unify. There are two key differentiators that elevate the story beyond team-based collaboration to being a core building block of a more comprehensive approach to making employees and enterprises more productive.

First is scale, and for larger enterprises, this is where Unify’s pedigree trumps the pure play collaboration offerings. Circuit is being deployed globally within Siemens, and with 300,000 potential users, this would be by far the largest collaboration deployment in the market. While it’s not totally clear what this deployment actually looks like, it’s fair to say that Unify is in a great position to demonstrate proof of concept for the enterprise market, especially in terms of supporting large numbers of simultaneous users.

This matters for two reasons. First, platforms like Slack don’t have deployments on that scale, and as we were told, they cannot perform at that level. I can’t validate that firsthand, but given the type of companies that are naturally drawn to players like Slack – smaller companies that want to be nimble and are open to bleeding-edge solutions – it will take time to build up a user base that has large enterprise-grade requirements. In fact, their top end offering – Enterprise – as per their website is “Coming Soon,” so clearly it’s a work in progress.

Circuit is already there, and that brings me to the second differentiator: voice. This is the gaping hole in offerings like Slack, at least for telephony and the need for real time communications as a driver for collaboration. More importantly, it’s the bridge between collaboration and UC. Just as WebRTC and IRC are native to players like Slack, telephony is native to Unify, and for businesses that feel telephony needs to be part of the solution, Circuit covers all the bases.

Bridging Collaboration to Communications and UC

A key takeaway for me from Unify’s conference was the fact that OpenScape and fixed line telephony are both alive and well. The latter was also a big takeaway from Cisco’s recent Collaboration Summit, so this trend is bigger than Unify. Most businesses are a long way from going all-in with pure play collaboration platforms for a variety of reasons, and that’s why Circuit is as much a building block as a standalone solution.

For OpenScape customers, there is native PSTN integration, so if they want to add Circuit, employees can have a richer multimedia collaboration experience than what the likes of Slack can provide. Not only are all the core modes available, but Unify has shown the ability to scale for large deployments – and that’s where the real money will be made.

Aside from that, Circuit is the only enterprise-grade collaboration platform that can integrate with all the SIP-based PBX vendors. This is important because pure play collaboration vendors aren’t their only competition. Cisco, Microsoft and Avaya are more important rivals since that’s where the growth will come from in winning new business.

For any of these customers, Circuit can seek its own market as a standalone solution, and that’s where things get interesting. Cisco Spark is the strongest collaboration offering from this group, but for telephony, it only supports Call Manager. As such, these vendors have limited opportunity to encroach on OpenScape’s customer base for collaboration, whereas they are all Greenfield opportunities for Circuit – at least for now.

This brings me to my ITExpo panel where the distinctions between collaboration and communication were parsed out. I’ve been on this soapbox for some time as the vendors don’t do a great job in their messaging, and it’s clear to me that IT decision-makers – and channels – struggle with this too. My main message is that a collaboration platform is not a substitute for UC, and going alone with a solution like Slack only addresses a narrow problem set. I see these as complementary needs that require distinct solutions. While there are loads of companies using offerings like Slack for collaboration in tandem with UC platforms, the synergies are limited.

Enterprises that go with Circuit really have the best of both worlds. If they’re on OpenScape, they get a totally integrated solution for both collaboration and UC. If they’re using other UC vendors, they can still have a bridge to voice and the PSTN. Now that Circuit has been properly productized, channels will have a much easier time selling it, and compared to the other vendors, this gives them the widest possible market opportunity. That hasn’t been lost on Unify, and we heard a lot at their conference about how the channel is being revamped around the new market realities.

The big wild card of course, is how well this fits into the overall vision Atos has in mind for Unify. That will take some time to unfold, but within our realm, it’s clear that Circuit has come a long way in a year’s time, and if they can show the market the distinct value of collaboration with Circuit and UC with OpenScape, it’s hard to see how Atos would push back against this.

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