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Avaya Fares Well with Flare

By now you’ve read and heard about Avaya’s launch of new video conferencing and collaboration products, as well as the new "experience" called Flare. It’s important to note that Flare is not a product--it's the experience. How that will fly with users, we'll have to wait and see. I don’t see Flare being used as a verb like Microsoft's new Lync (let's lync up tomorrow), but it's still a pretty good name.

Avaya announced several new offerings, including a new video device and a video conferencing suite of products, as well as a hosted service-base offering of its web.alive product (a la its Nortel acquisition). The key announcements were the Flare experience and the new Avaya Desktop Video Device (I guess Avaya used its branding and naming dollars on Flare and didn’t have any left over for the video device). Other new offerings as part of the Avaya Video Collaboration Solution include video-enabled SIP endpoints, including Avaya Desktop Video Device, Avaya Video Conferencing System (room based), Avaya one-X Communicator 6.0 (supporting video for the PC initially and enhanced with the new Flare experience over the next 6 months), and a new generation of desktop phones, which don’t support video today, but will soon support a multimodal, multisession experience.

(As a side note, Avaya used the term "multimodal" throughout the launch, noting that it’s not just about voice, but an integrated experience using any type of media channel or device--kudos to Art Rosenberg, who’s been championing the use of this term for years.)

During the launch in NYC, Dr. Alan Baratz stated that, "these products are available today--you don’t have to wait till next year to order," which was meant as a shot at Cisco’s Cius which won't be available for a while, but it isn't entirely accurate. What’s available now is Avaya Video Conferencing Solution Release 1.0, Avaya one-X Communicator Release 6.0, Avaya Professional Service for Video, and Avaya Managed Services for Video. The Avaya Flare Experience Release 1.0, the Avaya Desktop Video Device for Avaya Flare, The Avaya Aura Collaboration Server, and the Avaya 9600 Series Deskphone with Avaya Flare features will not be available until Q4 2010.

To me, the most interesting announcement was Flare, or the Flare experience. Baratz noted that up until now, Avaya hasn't had the endpoints and client software to fully leverage the capabilities of Avaya Aura on the back end needed to deliver a unified user experience on the front end. As a personal workspace with drag and drop communication services and information access, Flare will do for the front end what Aura does for the back end. It leverages Avaya Aura infrastructure and shared SIP-based applications. Flare integrates IM, presence, email, contacts, calendar, messaging, web browsing, social networking, business applications, etc. in a single interface (a key element of a unified communication solution!). Flare is not just for Avaya clients but will be for mobile devices or any end point, with a single interface.

Baratz also noted that "Avaya plans to deliver a truly unified 'Unified Communications' Experience," which of course I'm excited about. He stated that SIP can carry any type of traffic, and the Avaya Aura infrastructure can supply all customers' real-time communications needs, so you don’t need a separate infrastructure for video, for example. Aura provides a single infrastructure, smaller footprint, lower capex and opex, to deliver RT audio, video. Now, all enterprises need to do is connect a video device end point and you can deliver video. One potentially impressive capability is the ability to automatically roll over to voice mail if a video call doesn't go through. Avaya claims that initiating a video conference is as easy as placing a phone call, and based on what I've seen from the demos, it's true.

Avaya's user experience engineers did a nice job with the user design, particularly the Spotlight, which is a metaphor for a conversation or conference. One the side of the user interface is contacts from enterprise directories like Outlook as well as from integration with web 2.0 social networking contacts (it's under IT control whether or not to include social networking contacts). The contact cards provide presence information on voice, video, and IM status. The user scrolls through and drags the contact card over to the spotlight on the screen, and selects which mode to use for communication--voice, IM, video, email, social media, etc. To add more people to the call or conference, simply drag the contacts into the spotlight. Users can also put the conference on hold and establish another session by dragging one or more contacts to a separate spotlight. This looked very compelling, but without trying it, I'm not sure how it feels to the users who are brought in and out of conferences at what seems to be someone else’s control.

Avaya claims that Flare is about building on the "integrated people-centric user experience," providing intuitive multi-modal collaboration, and context aware communications, while adding new "comprehensive end-to-end video collaboration solutions." Avaya certainly seems to have developed an intriguing new user experience that will make real-time communications and collaboration simpler and more effective. The price point for the new video device is on the high side ($2,000 list compared with Cisco's Cius, which is expected to cost under $1,000), but it provides many capabilities that video-hungry users will want. Avaya notes that the video device was designed to optimize the Flare experience, such as being able to view your communication history with someone when you pull up their contact information, providing more context to the interaction.

The Flare experience will also be extended to the one-X Communication 6.0 client, and the new Avaya 9600 series desk phones, providing enhanced collaboration capabilities including voice, conference control, IM, and presence.

While overall I'm impressed with what I’ve seen and the direction Avaya is taking, I'd like to see more in terms of business process integration. Avaya has some good videos of Flare use cases, but they’re pretty much the usual suspects--doctors on a video conference and sharing radiology reports on a patient, and development teams collaborating to get a project completed sooner. These are great, but as Avaya was so gung-ho on the whole Communications Enabled Business Process (CEBP) bandwagon, I'd like to see more in this area, with examples of how Flare can be part of a business process application or workflow.

Again, I like what I saw and I believe that Avaya is doing a good job of making communications and collaboration simpler and more accessible. We all know that it’s all about the user experience, and Avaya obviously put a lot of time and effort into researching and studying the user experience to provide an intuitive and simple way to communicate via any mode, while providing context and information to make the communications more effective.

In the final analysis, it will be about what the actual end user experience is really like--not only to be able to drag and drop someone into a conference session, but to be the one who is brought into a session and then moved to a side conference, for example. From the communication initiator perspective, Flare looks great, but we didn't see as much from the recipient’s perspective--what will their experience be? Also, how will Flare fare on non-Avaya Personal Video Devices? As Avaya noted, those devices were purpose-built for the Flare experience, but what about devices that weren’t built for Flare? What will the mobile experience be like on different mobile devices? This was glossed over, but is a crucial piece of the puzzle.