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Is Apple the Future of UC?
If you ask a hundred enterprises what vendor is likely to dominate unified communications and collaboration, you get answers like "Microsoft" or "Cisco", or "Avaya". One answer that you almost surely won’t get is "Apple", but the truth is that Apple may be the pivotal player in UC...and they may determine if there’s a UC market at all.
The coolest smartphone? The iPhone. The coolest and most popular tablet? The iPad. There's no question that Apple has learned how to merchandize technology. Their success has reshaped the way that we integrate "the network" into our lives. We all accept this at one level, but I don't think we've thought through the implications. Two dimensions of Apple's success have a direct impact on the UC space--perhaps the biggest impact of all.
Work is part of our lives. The tools that we use to get information, to connect with others, to make purchase decisions or get directions, are all tools we carry with us even to work. When I survey enterprise workers who are "empowered" with technology and that collaborate regularly, I find workers who are three times as likely to have an iPhone as the general population of mobile phone users, and five times as likely to have an iPad. Apple's tools are influencing the key players in the enterprise world.
What's Apple's contribution to the vision of UC? It's the same as their contribution to the notion of mobile broadband--which is that the user conceptualizes mobile services around the device and not around the services. To an Apple fan, collaboration isn't software, isn't hosted; it's an app. That flies in the face of UC strategies that try to make collaboration build outward from a call or from a screen. It even defeats the giant UC brands like Avaya or Microsoft; an Avaya app on an iPhone is an iPhone app.
The next truth is that iPhones and iPads are revolutionizing the way that networks couple users to each other in social groupings. Twitter and Facebook are more powerful influences on behavior if you’re always able to access them, which means that they’re inherently mobile applications. Does this sound like communications and collaboration to you? Sure, neither of these two social phenomena are suited for most enterprise collaborative missions, but it doesn't take much imagination to see how a kind of "closed user group" within either could be made suitable.
It also doesn’t take much imagination to see that Apple, who started this all off, understands that "work" is a subset of "life". Apple has been trying for years to break into the enterprise space. They've also had their own lighthearted UC/UCC experience in MobileMe. There are rumors that Apple plans to make MobileMe free to create more users, but when in the past has Apple been formulating strategies to give stuff away? It's more likely that Apple is looking to make MobileMe something that pays off for Apple. That might involve an entry-level element that’s free, but it's most likely just the on-ramp for something that costs users and so that pays Apple.
Then there’s iWork. This Office competitor has, like Office itself, been flirting with an online element (iWork.com is in beta). Could we combine iWork.com and MobileMe to create something like UC? It sure would seem that way. And what's truly interesting here is that Apple has taken some steps to halt promotions on both products, something Apple-watchers say usually means an upgrade is forthcoming. Given Apple's success with smartphones and tablets, and given that any rational UC/UCC strategy pretty much has to center on these devices, how could Apple possibly lose if they jump into the space? You could argue that they'd lose to Google, but the Android handset market is fragmented, the Android tablet market is anemic, and Google's commitment to the enterprise under Larry Page is questionable.
So does this mean that I'm predicting that Apple is the new UC giant? No. What it means is that I'm predicting that's one of two possible outcomes. Apple can define the UC space so completely that anyone in it is either a slave to Apple's positioning, or is irrelevant. That doesn't mean that they will, though. Apple could also walk away from UC completely, toss the brass ring back to the current UC masses. And they might, not because they think they'd lose but because they don't want to bother to win.
UC has not lived up to its potential. How many "This is the Year!" speeches have you heard now? The question is whether UC has failed because the vendors have failed to capture its real value, or whether that real value just isn't all that significant. The greatest marketer in all of tech now has UC success in the palm of its hand, and if they decide to dust off their palms and move elsewhere then it’s because they know nobody can make money there...even Apple.
Social communication is here, and Apple brought it to us. It may be that Unified Communications is just a little piece of that, and that Apple has already won all there is to win in the UC space.