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Do 4G and Smartphones Create the "Unified Field Theory" of UC?

If you look at the basic premise of UC, which is "unification," it stands to reason that the fundamental presumption is that communications isn't unified naturally. In fact, it's disconnected in two dimensions; different communications media like voice, email, and IM are one of the two, but not the most important according to enterprises. Enterprises I survey tell me that they recognize three fundamental worker "states of mobility:" at the desk, stationary in another location, and mobile.Optimal productivity goals are met when workers can be empowered with a kind of "virtual super-appliance," a software tool that can be used on any type of device. But having something like this isn't helpful unless communications facilities in those three states of mobility are comparable. Today they're not, but 4G may change that and thus change both the value proposition and the basic architecture of UC.

There has been a lot of talk about 4G wireless, and unfortunately much of it has focused on a kind of war between LTE and WiMAX. From an enterprise perspective, it really doesn't matter much which one wins, and it's very likely that both will deploy in most major industrial markets. The importance of 4G is really its ability to support higher speeds to data appliances; a 4G cell has up to 50 times the capacity of a 3G cell and could support at least an order of magnitude more users. This means that 4G networks are far more likely to deliver communications performance comparable with that available from corporate LANs or through hotel broadband Internet connections and enterprise VPNs. Whether you're walking along a street or sitting in a restaurant, 4G unifies the communications resources available to workers in all their states of mobility.

What makes 4G particularly appealing in this regard is that most providers plan aggressive femtocell deployment in parallel with their normal cell build-out. The femtocells would be located in hospitality sites and also be available for home and office installation. This is an important step because these locations, which create an unusually high density of wireless use, can actually congest their local cell tower and reduce service quality for everyone. To alleviate this, femtocells and 4G would add selective capacity where it's needed the most.

An even more revolutionary change could come in voice services. 4G wireless, unlike 3G, is primarily based on a VoIP service model. This eliminates the requirement that UC systems mediate circuit-switched calling effectively in order to generate a strong value proposition for the buyer. That development, in turn, lets voice call handling be far more distributable-session border controllers can be put into nearly any type of product. The distribution of voice as VoIP also creates the first step toward that super-appliance by creating a single super-interface-IP and the Internet. Now, UC call handling in headquarters and in the back seat of a rental car can be based on the same calling interface and features.

Service equality through the states of mobility will encourage enterprises to adopt an "as-a-service" model for UC. SOA and private cloud computing advances are making it possible to support most enterprise applications through thin clients, letting both netbooks and smartphones serve more business application needs. In fact, even some personal productivity tools (the "MS Office" set) are already available in at least a limited form online. As network-based applications increase in popularity, the smarts, software, and performance needed for the client side of the application reduces. What was once a power desktop becomes a laptop, and perhaps eventually a netbook or smartphone. UC in a 4G world follows this same migration.

If we combined an as-a-service-enabled netbook or smartphone with VoIP call handling, we've created both a super-interface and a super-appliance. We've also demonstrated the risks and benefits to the current UC model. As-a-service devices need as-a-service UC, meaning a least a hosted or "cloud-ready" model. Ideally they should be based on a pretty standard interface to the device, and so it's logical to assume that providers might want to offer this kind of service directly to enterprises as they offered CENTREX in the old TDM days. Think Google Voice for UC.

That's the real debate; are we going to see "Google Voice for UC" or "Google Voice as UC?" Google and other giants could easily offer UC tools cheap and compelling enough to address mass-market UC feature needs. It will be impossible for current UC vendors to match the economies of scale and the pricing levels of something like Google Voice, Google Wave, etc. But it will be possible for them to create a harmonized, componentized, UC model that can augment or envelope hosted voice, email, and message services in many forms and provide them to users in a way that best fits their specific business needs. Customization, in both horizontal and vertical market terms, is the UC vendors' best defense against commoditization of UC by giants like Google. The future of dynamic and flexible UC is federation of UC elements to support composition of highly customer-optimized UC deployments. Vendor attempts to be their customers' exclusive UC provider will fail.

I think it's inevitable that the 4G/smartphone revolution will drive UC toward a federated model where various components are provided by various players, hosted perhaps partially on public clouds and partially on private facilities, and supporting standard interfaces to client systems and standard interfaces to integrate components and expand functionality.