This article originally appeared in the Dec. 2011 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY.
It seems like 2011 is the year of the cloud, and if you believe everything you read, you’d think it was a foregone conclusion that this is where all things IT will end up before long. This scenario may well come to pass, but when thinking about unified communications, I’d say we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves.
The overall trend is pretty clear, but is anyone asking what businesses really want? Most telecom vendors are coming to market now with cloud-based UC offerings, either as pure play businesses, or to complement (and replace) premises-based solutions. Either way, it appears that vendors are firmly on the cloud bandwagon.
I believe they’re on the right path, but having attended a number of recent industry events – including ITEXPO (News - Alert) in Austin – it’s also fair to say that even basic UC offerings are ahead of what many businesses – especially SMBs – are comfortable with today.
For those of us steeped in VoIP, it seems almost like yesterday’s technology. True, VoIP has been around since 1995, but mainstream business adoption is still quite recent, and legacy telephony remains the dominant technology. Nobody is buying TDM equipment any more, but the installed base will be with us for some time. Furthermore, with an economy that remains weak, businesses are inclined to keep those legacy phones for as long as they can.
In my view, walk before you can run tells the story here. While UC vendors have moved well beyond VoIP on the technology spectrum, many businesses are just getting comfortable with VoIP. It’s no secret that SMBs generally deploy VoIP to save money without giving much consideration to its rich upside. They quickly grow into that, which in turn sets the stage for UC. However, that’s more like the thin edge of wedge, and jumping to the cloud is still a pretty big stretch for most businesses.
There certainly will be businesses willing to make the jump straight from VoIP to the cloud, but that won’t be typical. The stand-alone benefits are great, but initially VoIP is seen as being telecom-centric; it basically replicates TDM for less money along with some new features. There may be some thought around the idea of using a hosted service for VoIP, but the vision isn’t much broader.
When vendors start talking about UC, business don’t generally think in those terms. They’re still thinking about telecom, and it’s enough to get them beyond that to the broader plane of IP communications. No matter how you package it, UC can be complex, and IT decision makers need to be comfortable first in terms of its compatibility with their network. Once they get past that, then the benefits of integrating multiple modes in real time will resonate. As any successful UC vendor knows, at this point, the conversation shifts from ROI to TCO, and decision becomes strategic not just for IT, but for the business as a whole.
SMBs are a natural market for the cloud, since the complexities of UC often exceed their IT capabilities, but that doesn’t mean they’re total believers yet. Whether listening to vendors or VARs, the cloud can be a big leap of faith, especially if they’re not using it for other IT functions. Even if they are, only the most VoIP-savvy will be ready to entrust their full communications regime to the cloud.
My main message here is that the cloud may seem like a fait accompli for UC vendors, and they need to offer this to stay competitive – but these expectations don’t quite jive yet with the marketplace. UC really should be a stepping stone to the cloud for those who want it, and offering all of this at once could be overwhelming for businesses that are just getting the hang of VoIP.
Just like VoIP had its hype cycle when Vonage (News - Alert) was disrupting the status quo in 2004, cloud is repeating the pattern now. Both look like sure things, but here we are in 2011, and Vonage still only has low single-digit penetration in the VoIP market. VoIP has since taken other forms, and I have no doubt that cloud will do the same, if only to find a viable niche until the mainstream catches up. History repeats itself, and my hope is that UC vendors will heed the lessons from VoIP and listen closely to what the buyers are really ready for.
Jon Arnold, Principal at J Arnold & Associates, has been a long time columnist for TMCnet, and is a regular contributor and member of the UCStrategies team. To read more of Jon’s TMCnet articles, please visit his columnist page.
Edited by Stefania Viscusi