Think Unified Experiences, Not Just Unified Communications
Robust APIs, and the embedded communications and collaboration they enable, are the great enablers of unified experiences.
Seamless, unified digital experiences stand out because they make life easier.
Think of searching for directions to a restaurant, from the Web or your mobile device, and also receiving photos, customer reviews, and the phone number to call for reservations. Or consider talking to a customer service representative who can quickly pull up your records, based on your phone number, and see your history of prior interactions with the company. Contrast that with the agent who asks you the same questions about your account number and birth date that you just laboriously answered by keying those numbers into your phone.
User experiences that feel effortless are the result of tremendous effort, design, and planning by application and technology platform developers who think deeply about making software products work together. That is why APIs are the great enabler of unified experiences. When the makers of software products and Internet services simplify the sharing of information with each other, each magnifies the power of the others. By giving up a measure of proprietary lock-in, the creators of API-rich software gain much more than they lose.
Unfortunately, that strategy is still the exception to the rule -- especially in the unified communications space. If you want to mix and match and create a multi-cloud experience, good luck. If there is an API, too often it is a token effort designed more to protect the vendor's franchise than to provide a useful level of access. For example, many unified communications vendors are so protective of data access via APIs, even from authorized users, that trying to build an inbound screen pop or a custom call monitoring dashboard is virtually impossible -- or requires an extraordinary understanding of undocumented APIs.
The challenge is, most enterprises wind up with a mix of communication and collaboration technologies. Some actively resist vendor lock-in, espousing a "best of breed" technologies strategy. Others try for a homogenous enterprise architecture, but then they merge with another company that made different choices. Or along comes a startup with a cloud service or software product they can't resist adding to the mix. Even when attempting to deal with a single vendor, they encounter fragmentation as products are acquired, spun off, replaced, or killed. Besides, requirements change -- the vendor that checks every box on your list today may not meet your needs tomorrow.
The goal should be unified experiences, not just unified communications. Customers, employees, and partners value unified experiences -- and can get much more out of embedding communications into other business applications or customizing their workflows to gain better efficiencies or secure access. An example would be a shopping website that lets a customer confirm his or her identity with a text message or request a callback from customer service, while presenting customer service personnel with an integrated view of all of that customer's phone, email, website, and social media interactions. If you can't find one technology platform that is equally good at meeting all those requirements, robust APIs allow you to deliver the experience anyway.
In a recent post, "Software is still eating the world," Jeetu Patel, Box's chief strategy officer and head of Box Platform, gave the example of Uber's use of Amazon Web Services infrastructure, Google Maps directions, Twilio communications, Braintree payments processing, and SendGrid email. The API economy allows everyone to focus on what they do best, whether that's managing enterprise content or delivering cloud-based phone services, while tapping other cloud services for added value.
APIs for Unified Communications
Communications services have featured a certain amount of interoperability for a long time, thanks to basic Internet protocols like those for exchanging email or setting up VoIP connections. Providers typically distinguish their products at a layer above that foundation, with the data and logic to make email more useful or to forward VoIP calls from a desk phone to a mobile phone. APIs can provide access to those higher levels of intelligence.
The advance of Internet standards is certainly part of this story. For communications services, WebRTC is coming into its own as a way of integrating voice and video into the Web browser experience without the need for plugins. Browser support is becoming more universal, as shown by Apple's recent announcement of WebRTC in WebKit.
A good API should incorporate relevant standards but ultimately it's judged by the functionality and the flexibility it delivers. The idea is to bridge between modes of communication, letting you call, message, or email from a common contact list. In communications and collaboration, that means not merely letting developers add a click-to-call button to an application but supporting more imaginative possibilities for customizing reports or manipulating call flow.
Let's go back to Box as an example. Think about being able to integrate cloud communications with Box so you can share documents through SMS to ensure speedy delivery. Think of all the instances in your organization where communication and collaboration are much more fragmented than they should be – where integration still happens at the level of someone copying information into one system and pasting it into another, rather than systems providing us with a fluid way to relay information to the people who need it.
As communications software and services companies begin to compete at the level of APIs, I believe there is room for lots of improvement in the industry to do a better job of delivering unified experiences, not just unified communications.