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March 17, 2008

Beyond UC: Contextual Communications

By Dan Miller, Senior Analyst & Founder, Opus Research

Unified Communications has entered into the silly season. After massive re-branding and promotional efforts by major communications and IT infrastructure providers, the term has lost all meaning. The UC landscape today is more like one of those multilevel, Plexiglass chess boards.

At the highest level, Microsoft (News - Alert) Office Communicator and Communications Server are in pitched battle with IBM/Lotus SameTime, Unified Telephony and the most recent revs of the WebSphere Portal. Starting on a lower level of the UC stack, Cisco lays claim to primacy based on dominant share of the installed base of broadband IP-based routing software and hardware bearing its Unified Communications Manager Brand. It has made forays into the higher (applications) layers with the Unify Server for message management and Presence Server to support IM-like status indicators.

The latest and most dramatic entrant into the UC wonderland is Aspect (News - Alert) Software by launching its entire 2008 branding, marketing and packaging efforts under ‘Unified Communications for the Contact Center.’

A lot has changed since unified messaging, a clear precursor to UC, was first introduced in the 1980s. Then unified messaging carried with it the idea of a ‘single mailbox’ for voicemail and e-mail and a set of challenges surrounding solution development and implementation. Now, nearly every provider of telecommunications gear, software, middleware and end-devices (including PCs, laptops, smartphones, wireless handsets and more) has laid claim to some sort of UC product.

Integrators had to figure out whether there should be a single repository or ‘mail store’ for multimedia messages. Then they needed to develop user friendly ‘message indicators,’ such as stutter dial-tone for voicemail and toast-like ‘pop-ups’ indicating the arrival of an e-mail, instant message, text message, or even the change of status for a member of one’s buddy List.

In all cases, the three technological roots of UC are broadband, IP-based networks, a multiplicity of Web services and peer-to-peer, real-time communications. The benefits of UC for end-users are manifold. At base, they are now comfortable with IM-like presence indicators showing whether a friend or business associate is ‘online,’ ‘offline,’ ‘busy,’ ‘on the phone’ or otherwise engaged.

In addition to presence indicators, the latest IM clients are initiators of collaboration, or more accurately, real-time multimedia conferencing. The capability is enabled by virtually every IM- or IP-telephony client, which is a list that includes Microsoft Office Communicator, IBM SameTime and Oracle Collaboration Suite in the enterprise. Outside the de facto walled garden of the enterprise WAN, users of the venerable AOL (News - Alert) Instant Messenger (AIM), Yahoo! Messenger and GoogleTalk know that they are able to share files, pictures, music and initiate (VoIP-based) phone calls.

The idea that a broadband IP, telephony-oriented network creates a platform for peer-to-peer communications, file sharing and, ultimately, commerce explains why eBay was willing to commit cash, stock and future considerations in excess of $4 billion for Skype (News - Alert) in September 2005. In a nutshell, the acquisition illustrated both the high-expectations and the challenges associated acceptance of UC. At the very least, eBay would use Skype and its IP-telephony network (one of the flavors of Unified Communications) to provide a free channel through which buyers could communicate with sellers in the course of a transaction.

Without reinforcement of user context, most efforts are doomed.

Just two years later, eBay took $1.4 billion in write-offs surrounding its Skype investment. In doing so it signaled that VoIP is fact of life and an important building-block for UC and, ultimately, Contextual Communications. The Internet has long demonstrated its ability to facilitate conversations. Whether it’s Vonage, AT&T, Comcast or one of a thousand other carriers offering inexpensive flat-rates for telephone service, VoIP is here to stay, but cheap phone service is just a commodity until it moves to another level. One opportunity is to serve as a UC enabler, providing cheap or free minutes on the phone network which comprise the raw material on which whole new lines of business are being built.

In its role as IP-telephony provider to eBay, Skype should have had a competitive advantage among generic VoIP providers because it served as the voice communications link between buyers and sellers in the context of impending transactions. Nobody else could promise that capability, especially with close to seven million Skype users online at any point in time. Indeed, in a world where most of us are convinced that UC is a platform for collaboration among enterprise employees, eBay had a chance to position Skype as ‘UC for the rest of us.’ It’s just a matter of context.

Providing communications and content in a context that directly benefits end-user is the point. In fact, it is the root of Contextual Communications. Unified messaging had its growth stumped by a failure to prove immediate value to end-users. Today’s multiple flavors of Unified Communications could suffer the same fate. That’s where ‘context’ rears its head. In an age where Google searches accustom Web browsers to instant gratification and where Google, itself, continually refines its results based on each of its visitors search histories, context, rather than ‘content,’ is now king.

Refining each user’s experience based on aggregation and management of metadata is one of the foundations of Contextual Communications. Yes, there is a dark side, also known as invasion of privacy. Yet, on the positive side, Google has achieved such financial success because it is so effective in the way it tailors each user’s experience based on the breadcrumbs that each one leaves when venturing into the Web through the ubiquitous search box.

Management of personal metadata is at the crux of Contextual Communications. Google applies its famous (and ever-changing) search algorithm to personalize its user experience based on imputed characteristics. Enterprise contact center executives are well-advised to mimic Google in many ways by making the most of what they know about specific customers based on the originating phone number (mobile or fixed), dialed number, recent activity (through Web, e-mail, text, IM and any other channels), prosody of utterances (is this an angry person?) and even voiceprints as a unique identifier.

Unified Communications is a concept that oozes out of any container one might place it in. By contrast, Contextual Communications focuses development on the aspects of UC designed to improve the user experience and lead to quick, positive resolution of both inbound and outbound communications.
Dan Miller (News - Alert) is senior analyst and founder with Opus Research.

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Featured Speakers

Mike Rhodin
General Manager, Lotus Software, IBM
Session Title:
Communicate and Collaborate at the Speed of Business
Wednesday, March 19 9:00 AM - 10:00 AM
David Marshak,
Senior Product Manager, Unified Communications and Collaboration (UC�), IBM
Session Title:
Presence: Cornerstone of Enterprise Communications?
Wednesday, March 19 4:00 PM - 5:00 PM
Terrence Hickey:
Global Business Services Solution Executive, Contact Centers, IBM
Session Title:
Contact Center Executive Forum
Monday, March 17 1:30 PM - 2:45 PM

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