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Disruptive Innovations in Unified Communications

A disruptive innovation is a technologically simple innovation in the form of a product, service, or business model that takes root in a tier of the market that is unattractive to the established leaders in an industry.

-Clayton Christensen

Do you remember your first public email account? I remember mine. It was a Yahoo account that I created sometime in the 1990s. While I had a work email account for a number of years prior to that, it was only used for professional emails within my company and to other companies. It wasn't the kind of thing I would have used to send links to cat videos (even if cat videos existed back then).

Compared to what is available today, those original Yahoo mail accounts were pretty bare bones. Messages were written using basic text, and the only bells and whistles that I recall were rudimentary spam filtering and block lists. There was no html or rich text formatting. You couldn't prioritize emails or set custom stationary backgrounds. The account was free, though, and despite its simplicity, I was happy with what it could do.

I can't exactly recall how much storage space each account was allocated, but by today's standards, it was minuscule. Actually, minuscule is being too generous. It was either 1 or 1.5 megabytes. Yes, you heard me right -- 1.5 megabytes. And no, I don't mean message size (which was probably a lot less). I am talking about total storage for all emails sent or received.

Such innocent times we lived in.

You can still get a free Yahoo email account ... and do you know what the new limit is? One terabyte. That's 666,666.667 times more storage than what I started out with all those years ago.

So, why the big change? Did people suddenly become more verbose and every email rivaled the length of Gone with the Wind?

Of course not. What changed was that we moved far beyond simple text. We wanted color and different fonts. We wanted to bold text and emphasize important words in italics. We wanted some phrases to stand out. More importantly, we wanted to send emails that didn't rely on text alone. We wanted to attach documents, videos, and embed photographs. We wanted our emails to reflect the multimedia world that we lived in on our computers.

For many people, the driving need for a larger email storage limit was the invention of the smart phone and its built-in camera. Now, instead of having to lug around "real cameras," pockets and purses are loaded up with these mobile recording studios. Everything from tonight's dinner to our kids' soccer games are captured, uploaded, and emailed to friends and family around the world. The 5K email of 1997 became 5meg, and a single message would have exceeded a 1.5 megabyte inbox by almost a factor of three. Practically overnight, email accounts replaced the shoeboxes of photographs and Super-8 film reels of my parent's era.

Joseph Bower and Clayton Christensen wrote of "disruptive innovations" in their 1995 article Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave. Christensen defined it even further in his book The Innovator's Dilemma.

The principle notion of disruptive innovation is fairly straightforward. For most of its life, a particular technology will be incrementally enhanced and refined through minor changes and steady improvements. However, every so often something new will come along that completely disrupts this drip, drip, drip trajectory and turn that technology on its head. The change, big or small, can either force a major rethink or cause some technologies to either disappear or significantly drop in importance.

These changes can make or break an otherwise successful company. As stated in their original article, Bower and Christensen write:

Several years ago, a coworker posted a list of the top ten Minnesota (my home) companies by decade. I was shocked at how many companies at the top of the list one decade were either gone or far less significant by the following decade. Off the top of my head, I recall names such as Cray Computer and Control Data Corporation. Once upon a time they were worldwide powerhouses, but Cray fell on hard times before being acquired, and CDC is long gone. The lists were peppered with similar first to worst stories. Clearly, being on the top of your game one year doesn't guarantee you will even be relevant the next.

Our industry has seen more than its fair share of disruptive innovation. In my 31-year-career, we've gone from analog, to digital, to proprietary IP, to finally, open standards IP. Where once we spoke, we now send instant messages. For some, it's not enough to hear you speak or read your words. They want to see you talk and chew gum at the same time. We want conferences that allow us to show charts, play videos, put up surveys, and raise our hand with a question.

Some companies have kept up with these sweeping changes, while others have been swept up in the dustbin of history. Do you remember Rolm? Nortel?

Some of those that survived are not as dominant as they once were. Avaya has lost significant market share over the years. ShoreTel was a hot prospect when they burst on the scene in 1996, but their luster has significantly dimmed. Unify and NEC are still players, but neither is rated as leaders in Gartner's Magic Quadrant.

The surprise newcomer is Microsoft. Who would have thought that a free consumer product like Skype would become synonymous with cutting-edge business telephony? Clearly, someone did, because not only does Microsoft rate very high in the Gartner Unified Communications Magic Quadrant, but I am hard pressed to not find some Skype or Lync presence in the many companies I work with. Whether or not these companies have gone full-blown Skype is insignificant. That fact that it's there is very telling. You can only kick the tires for so long before making the decision to drive a car off the lot.

Of course, I can't help but think back to the decade-by-decade list of top Minnesota companies. We have some major disruptive innovation on our doorstep in the form of WebRTC. While I cannot predict the future, I expect it will play a big part in who survives past 2020 and who doesn't. Some companies have embraced it wholeheartedly, while others (e.g. Microsoft) have been reluctant to make a commitment. The same can be said for virtualization, communications enabled business processes, SIP, cloud technology, and mobility. These disruptions in how we enabled communications a decade ago are still making waves today.

Returning to Bower and Christensen one more time, I am struck by these words:

As we head towards the close of 2015 and past the midpoint of the decade, it's important to take stock in where we are and where we are going. Just as smart phones and other data producing technologies drove up the size of email storage limits, innovations such as WebRTC will force similar disruptive changes in communications and communications suppliers. While I would love for every vendor to be a winner, history tells me that that's not going to happen. Like Control Data, the laggards will simply fade away.

Andrew Prokop writes about all things unified communications on his popular blog, SIP Adventures.

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