Friday, January 1, 2010

The real promise of Unified Communications

Conventional wisdom says that Unified Communications (UC) is about giving people a single unified user interface to all their communication devices, with the goal of making communications more effective. For example, UC software can keep track of a user's various communications devices, and selectively try different devices (work phone, cell phone, etc.) when trying to get a hold of that user. This makes it easier to get a hold of someone on the first try, thereby reducing wasted time and improving business velocity.

While valuable, this viewpoint misses the bigger opportunity. The real opportunity for UC is to change the paradigm by turning communications technology entirely into a software application: rather than providing a software veneer on top of telecommunications appliances, turn the software itself into the communications technology. This eliminates the need for single-function communications appliances and turns communications instead into a software application running on general-purpose IT infrastructure.

The benefits of this paradigm shift are extremely compelling:
  1. Adopting a software paradigm dramatically improves the ease-of-use of communications technology. At Avistar, we're often told that we should aim to make video conferencing as easy to use as the phone. My response to that is: "why set the bar so low"? I don't know about your phone, but my business phone is hardly easy to use. Using software interfaces, we able to do so much better.
  2. Software accelerates the pace of innovation. By getting out of the hardware business, Avistar got rid of a boat anchor that used to slow us down. Being a software-only business, we're now able to get new products to market faster than we've ever been before. The same holds true for the telecommunications industry as a whole.
  3. Last but not least, a software platform allows for integration of communications software with other software applications, making communications a feature or function of all types of other software applications. This makes communications a "first class citizen" in the workflow by allowing users to initiate interactions without having to switch to an external communications tool. More importantly, the "embedding" application provides the right context to the various parties communicating (this is typically referred to as contextual collaboration). Call center software has historically done this well, but there are many more untapped opportunities in other applications.

In summary, then, UC is about a paradigm shift away from communications appliances in favor of communications software. As a result, telecommunications will become a software business, and leaders in the telecommunications industry will all be software companies. As we enter a new decade, UC is just starting to drive this change, and I believe we're in for an exciting ride.

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