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The Dawn of Asymmetrical Communications

Since the beginning of time, communications applications have been essentially symmetrical. Whether it was two cans on the ends of a string, two telephones with 12 keys, or a new UC client with video and Web Conferencing, all of the end users got essentially the "same" experience.

While this changed somewhat as devices became more sophisticated, the end result was essentially the same. I might have a more advanced telephone with a display, but the general experience, especially once the communications started, was the same. This is also true in video, where the experiences are also generally symmetrical. Whether the Hollywood Squares or some other interface, all of the users get essentially the same experience.

We can think about there being two dimensions of diversity in communications experiences: one is the number of distinct communications events, the second is the variety of experiences in the event. As the chart below shows, we are already moving to a variety of different events. For example, many of us use traditional phone experiences, but now include Skype, a web conference like WebEx or Go-To-Meeting, as well as a UC offer. It is generally agreed that WebRTC will explode this by creating a much larger number of communications hosts as well as new paradigms. With over 200 WebRTC start-ups, many focused not just on communications, but other applications, this is going to be an explosion.

However, there has been little change in the symmetry within a communication. With the exception of a set of moderator tools in some conferencing platforms, the experiences that the users see are all the same. However, the same technologies that enable web based communications can rapidly lead to asymmetrical user experiences where the experiences are different for some or all of the participants based on the goal of the overall application and experience. The Google Cube Slam game is an example of this. While we are both in the same app, we each see the "pong" game board from a different perspective.

This will lead to some incredible innovation as users can define their Point of View, or the application can define different experiences based on roles or other factors. For example, a teacher instructing a group of students would have a very different experience than a student. If we add in a larger lecture with Teaching Assistants, the lecturer might see one view, each TA a view of their group, and each student yet another view.

Another example is first responders in an emergency. In a major trauma case, doctors may need to have video to each other, while an EMT might only need audio input, but might see the video of the doctor. 911 and others might similarly have different views and optimization. This same type of end user optimization can be applied to a wide variety of situations, from meetings to sales and beyond.

A current real-life example of Asymmetrical Communications is the "Mayday" button in the Kindle Fire. In this application, the user gets video of the agent and is pushed help info, while the agent gets audio from the user and screen shares of the device. Both the media and presentation are optimized for very different experiences for both participants.

As the WebRTC user experience is developed in JavaScript and web browsers, the effort to provide this level of asymmetrical optimization is dramatically lower than in the traditional communications clients. And as that web- and browser-based app can be deployed across a variety of devices, the level of effort for broad representation is potentially orders of magnitude less.

As this level of capability comes into the market, user expectations will change, and all of us delivering communications solutions into enterprises need to be prepared. We need to begin to think about communications events as integrated to the process or function, and not a standalone cookie cutter implementation.

As this becomes clear, the capability to optimize different user experiences within a single event will become a major differentiator of the next generation of communications solutions. Over the next few years, expect to be surprised as the innovation of the web changes the user experience, and expect your users to ask you why your experience is so outdated.