Over my last two columns, I’ve asked the same question about the desk phone and email. Both are cornerstones of how most people communicate, and while there’s a valid case to be made about their diminished utility, they will remain staples for years to come. Both have worked so well for so long, that most of us outside the bleeding edge will be hard pressed to make big changes. We may make less use of these applications, but unless abolished by IT, they will not disappear. Look no further than fax for a technology that has been deemed obsolete for years but is still a healthy business in certain verticals.
For this column, I want to push the envelope on this theme a bit and focus on UC. This is a very different scenario, but the same question is actually quite timely. Being point solutions, email and fixed line telephony are components of UC, and vendors could still offer variations of UC without them. As such, for UC to go away, something comparable in scope would have to replace it, and at this time, there is nothing out there. This isn’t to say UC is too big to fail, but given the current state of market disruption, there a lot of challenges for the road ahead.
Necessary disruption to address what UC has missed
Complicating this is the fact that unlike telephony and email, UC is far from ubiquitous, hence the conditional parentheses around “still” in the title. That word implies there are better options out there, and since UC only has a modest foothold, the business market hasn’t bonded that much with UC, so there’s not a lot to move on from. Most businesses seem to communicate just fine without UC – or even being aware of it; but, to be fair, ignorance is bliss. Things could be much better on this front, but these businesses simply haven’t given it enough thought, so they don’t know what they’re missing, so to speak.
The vendor community, however, is very much aware of what businesses are missing, and that’s what I’m trying to draw attention to. My last column set the stage for this one by saying that there is a better way to communicate and collaborate, but it’s not just about technology. The future is just as much about changing behaviors and expectations about how we work, where we work, when we work, etc. Technology may continually be evolving, but so is the workplace in our digital world.
Vendors know what’s at stake, and given UC’s slower-than-expected trajectory, many have focused on other approaches or are adding new complements that weren’t on the first generation roadmap. A big challenge facing UC is that innovation hasn’t kept up with the way needs are changing – both for end users and IT decision makers. I’ve addressed the rise of purpose-built collaboration vendors in an earlier column, and this is just one example of the disruption mentioned earlier.
There’s a reason why Avaya (News - Alert) just launched a standalone entity called Zang. The same goes for Cisco with Spark and Unify with Circuit. Similarly, there’s a reason why Vonage acquired gUnify, and why RingCentral (News - Alert) did the same with Glip, just to name two. UC has been in the market for many years now, yet all this hyper-activity has come along in the last year or so. All of these moves speak to a problem set that vendors and operators recognize, and are not really being addressed by UC in its current form.
Would you miss UC if it went away?
UC may be a great solution for what the market needed initially, and that’s why most offerings are telephony-centric. The disruption we’re seeing now is rooted in the emergence of modes and technologies that have come along since then. Prime examples include messaging applications, WebRTC, cloud-based video, and better mobile experiences. These are not part of UC’s core DNA, and that’s why the established vendors have been aggressively developing standalone collaboration platforms or acquiring them to offer a more complete solution.
This brings me to the question posed at the outset: Why use UC? My message is that UC – at least in the way most people think about it – is not the ultimate solution to make collaboration easier and employees more productive. Some businesses do these things very well without UC, and among those using it, there is no guarantee of success. Once deployed on the network, IT’s job isn’t done, and I would argue its greatest challenge is getting employees to use it. Like anything else, we tend to use things that are beneficial, but if things are too complex or have no clear advantage over what’s already in use, getting and maintaining adoption will be a constant struggle.
There’s a lot at stake here for vendors and operators, since UC covers a lot of ground and can be a major lever for IT spending. If their UC offerings are missing the mark, they need to get the collaboration piece right. Otherwise, they risk losing customers to new entrants that have bypassed or minimized the core UC elements, and built offerings that are entirely based on the cloud and web applications.
Considering a post-UC world
While it’s too early to tell if we’re in a post-UC world, the market has clearly shifted focus from conventional UC elements to a space defined by persistent meeting spaces that rely more on text and video modes than voice. Whether the established vendors will hold on to their installed bases is the next chapter, and I expect some of that base will migrate entirely to a new breed of competitor. The likes of Slack, Jive, Redbooth, etc. are just one example. Google, not surprisingly, is another, as would be Facebook (News - Alert).
This takes us a long ways from where UC started out, and we’re going to see a broadening realm of options, especially as core UC applications become embedded in other applications and platforms. At minimum, these new players will likely end up co-existing with established UC players, each sharing a piece of the pie from IT. Giving the declining cost curves for cloud services, however, that pie may end up shrinking, placing even more pressure to stay competitive.
All told, this will create more choice for businesses, not just for UC and collaboration solutions, but also for price points based on perceived value. For decision-makers, there’s more work to do to evaluate those choices, but the upside is getting exactly what you want rather than just taking what your incumbent vendor is offering. More importantly, don’t limit your thinking to UC – it’s not the only path, it’s not the ultimate solution, and it does not address every scenario for communication and collaboration. Whether or not you stick with telephony and email, there’s a world beyond UC to think about, and hopefully the questions I’m raising here will get you looking in the right places.
Jon Arnold is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications, and writes the Analyst 2.0 blog. Previously, he was the VoIP program leader at Frost & Sullivan.
Edited by Stefania Viscusi