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Any-Time Communications Emerges at EC 2015

One of the most important themes emerging at Enterprise Connect 2015 is any-time communications, typified by solutions that blend asynchronous communications such as email, social updates, and messaging with real-time communications such as voice and video.

Historically, real-time communications was instantaneous while asynchronous communications took days, weeks, even months in the case of some mail delivery. Today, with most all communications capable of being instant, the differences are more about format than timing. Conversations are now regularly occurring, near real time, over numerous communications solutions. (See my previous post, "Do 'UC' What's Next?"

The modern knowledge worker (and consumer) is more connected and communicative than ever, but conversations are scattered across multiple and unrelated domains. Unified communications ties together voice, IM, and video... but not email.

Any-time communications acknowledges that conversations shift between asynchronous and real-time modalities. Products in this category are similar to UC solutions with persistent chat, but represent a shift toward open or social interactions. They offer an alternative over email for workflow and collaboration with a real-time component.

Delivered via the cloud, any-time communications services also facilitate content transfers and sharing. To manage noise, they offer various controls for conversation and notification muting and the ability to start or resume conversations from different devices and device types.

This year at Enterprise Connect, Cisco, Interactive Intelligence, and Unify made major anytime communications-related announcements, and Acano and Biba have solutions on display in their booths.

Sparking Conversations
During his Enterprise Connect keynote Tuesday morning, Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Collaboration Technology Group, announced Cisco Spark, a commercialized version of the Project Squared app it announced last fall. The newly branded Spark blends textual messaging and video, is appropriate for one-to-one or team communications, and works across multiple devices and device types.

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Project Squared was a free experiment. Spark is a freemium offer. The distinction being that Cisco offered no billable or supported versions of Project Squared. Spark comes in three levels: a free version that includes unlimited virtual rooms, persistent messaging, file sharing, face-to-face video, and screen sharing, and two paid levels that include live support. The Message level runs about $13/user/month and adds several features including single sign-on integration with Active Directory service. The Message and Meet level blends Spark with WebEx conferencing for about $25/user/month.

Conversation threads contain valuable information. Search relies on access to content, thus opens a can of security worms. Various degrees of privacy are enabled in most solutions for anytime communications, but ultimately the service provider can still see all.

One of the most unique aspects of Spark is how it secures conversations, yet enables them to be discoverable, shareable, and searchable. Cisco is using Secure RTP with all Spark clients (including the browser) to its media servers. Organizations have the option to control the encryption keys, meaning that Cisco can host and deliver the service without access to the customer's content. The application allows for granular controls on content sharing among colleagues.

As No Jitter associate editor Michelle Burbick posted earlier this week, Interactive Intelligence announced the PureCloud Collaborate service. The company introduced PureCloud last year as an architecture platform for its customer engagement solutions. Now, Interactive Intelligence is expanding its focus to collaboration and general communications. PureCloud Collaborate, also available as freemium, offers presence, IM, virtual rooms, video, screen sharing, and content management. It is intended to be optionally combined with other PureCloud modules, such as the upcoming PureCloud Communicate module for voice and PSTN services.

Unify launched Circuit last fall, and yesterday at Enterprise Connect announced several updates to this collaborative anytime communications solution. The updates include new universal SIP connectors for telephony, Microsoft Exchange for Contacts, Box for shared files, a new guest access for external participants, recording, and a Circuit Labs environment for evaluation of applets.

Collaborative Commonalities
These solutions have a lot in common, with some major differences as well. For example, Cisco is working to ensure backwards compatibility with premises-based video solutions and WebEx. Presumably, Spark will soon integrate with Cisco enterprise voice solutions. Conversely, Biba partnered with Twilio to offer a cloud-based integrated voice service independent of a customer's UC solution. Unify announced the universal SIP integration for its own or other UC integration, and Interactive Intelligence strongly positions replacement of disparate solutions to a single PureCloud experience as a key part of its value proposition.

Differences also exist regarding preferred clients. Cisco and Biba have developed their own desktop clients, but also support browsers. Cisco only supports the Firefox browser (see related post, "Why Cisco's Project Squared Requires Firefox"). Chrome is the preferred browser for both Interactive Intelligence and Unify. All of the solutions offer mobile clients for Android and iOS. Cisco makes Spark available through its partner network, while Biba, Interactive Intelligence, and Unify are available directly.

Slack, which isn't at Enterprise Connect, offers a conceptually similar solution largely aimed at startups. Slack positions search and open conversations as a key attribute, which limits its appeal to enterprises, which tend to require granular security controls. Slack recently acquired Screenhero to add content sharing and voice.

The any-time communications category is rapidly evolving, and although it is conceptually similar to UC, its experience is much different. The solutions are becoming very enterprise appropriate with consistent development themes including Active Directory integration, globalization (Spark is launching in 17 languages, while PureCloud Collaborate launches in seven languages), mobile-first designs, cloud-speed development cycles, and elastic scalability.

I believe any-time communications solutions are game changers with significant ramifications for the future of enterprise communications. It is great to see so many options emerging and the solutions evolving so quickly. All but Circuit are available under a freemium adoption model, but Unify offers a free trial of Circuit. These tools are designed for group or team collaboration, but require some time and effort for adoption and evaluation. Round up a team and give them a go!

If you're interested in learning more about the freemium model and are attending Enterprise Connect, stop in for my Thursday 8 a.m. session, "Can You Make Friends With Freemium?"

Dave MIchels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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