Battle for UC Supremacy Lies With Data: Advantage Microsoft

The communications industry is unique in that it's a mature market but constantly being disrupted.

Over the years, we've seen a number of startups, such as cloud video provider Zoom and team collaboration app maker Slack, jump in and challenge the larger incumbents. And, in so doing, they turn companies like Microsoft into the hunted where they were once the hunter.

Last week at its Ignite user conference, Microsoft held a "debutante ball" for Teams -- demonstrating the product and showing all of the cool features that would enable it to compete more effectively against the likes of Slack. While Microsoft must be able to go toe to toe with other vendors in the space, in competing with point product vendors on their terms it's essentially lowering the value of Teams to the lowest common denominator. During the Ignite demo, Microsoft addressed guest access, shared presence with Skype for Business, and other holes that may have prevented companies from using Teams. Now is the time for Microsoft to sell its big-picture vision of what collaboration will become.

Data-Rich, Not Just Slick

Long-term winners in the collaboration industry won't be the ones with the slickest user interfaces or the most bells and whistles. This idea may seem counterintuitive in a world in which everyone talks about the value of user experience, but user experience is about much more than just the quality of an interface. In fact, the whole concept of user experience is changing, and that change will drive different requirements for market leadership. The most successful collaboration vendors will be the ones that have access to the most data and the machine learning algorithms to interpret the information and take action on it.

If my hypothesis is true, the scale certainly tips Microsoft's way. The company has a veritable cornucopia of data, between Microsoft 365 (Office 365 on steroids), LinkedIn, and Dynamics 365. I've used the analogy that Microsoft knows as much about a worker's activities as Google knows about a consumer's. It just needs to connect the dots between all of its sources of data to create some new experiences.

For example, if somebody on a Skype for Business or Teams call says, "I'll send you a PowerPoint to review by Friday," the natural language processing capabilities in Microsoft software should be able to interpret that statement in real time and automatically set a "Send PowerPoint" task for Friday in Outlook, Teams, or other application. Given Microsoft owns all the apps, building this sort of capability should be relatively simple for it to do.

Looking ahead, Microsoft is building activity maps of workers' usage patterns across the three domains (Microsoft 365, LinkedIn, and Dynamics 365) and getting into higher levels of contextual intelligence. This would allow a business leader to ask Cortana to assemble a project team to study Smart City implementations in Europe, for example.

The AI engine would scan all LinkedIn posts, blogs, e-mails, PowerPoint presentations, Word documents, other sources of data, and even things like Myers-Briggs personality profiling, to recommend a group of people for the project. It could even assess potential participants based on how often projects they're involved in are successful and whether they end on time. It also should be able to determine that if Kevin Kieller, Dave Michels, and Zeus Kerravala are on a project team, those projects always run beyond deadline, with poor results -- and so recommend that combination be avoided in a project team. The key is that Microsoft has the data, is building the AI capability, and has one of the biggest cloud back ends in the industry.

Another interesting use case is predictive communications based on contextual information. As an example, take the case where an executive is traveling to meet with a key client and alliance partner and his or her flight is delayed. Based on that information, the Microsoft AI capability should be able to look in everyone's calendars and automatically rebook the meeting based on availability. Again, all the data is there; Microsoft just needs to connect the dots to make such a scenario possible.

Nothing Is a Given

Microsoft may have an inherent advantage, but a win certainly isn't a fait accompli.

By far, Cisco has the most widely used online meeting tool in WebEx, which it's integrating into Spark -- and fusing that experience with physical meetings via Spark Board. Cisco has a different set of contextual information, such as user location, and can infer activity data from the network. The WebEx cloud isn't nearly as big as Microsoft's cloud, and Cisco is behind Microsoft on AI, although Cisco recently acquired AI company MindMeld and has previewed an AI-fueled virtual assistant, Monica.

Regarding the contact center, both vendors are lagging. While this has no direct bearing on internal collaboration, the internal and external worlds are certainly colliding as businesses look to compete on customer experience. If a sales executive sends a Spark or Teams guest link to a customer for collaboration, including the contact center information within that team collaboration space makes sense. Given their big cloud pushes, that neither Microsoft nor Cisco has built its own cloud-based contact center or acquired a provider like Five9 or Talkdesk, or even a company like ServiceNow, is mindboggling.

As I stated previously, UC, like most other markets, is becoming highly dependent on having data and finding insights in it -- and that certainly creates an advantage for Microsoft, which has more data than any company. To capitalize on this, Microsoft needs to stop chasing the point product vendors and work to a goal that only it can.

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