Google to Get Into UCaaS? (Finally!)

A persistent expectation, for more than a decade now, is that Google will get into the UCaaS business. Tech news site The Information earlier this week reported that UCaaS functionality, supposedly named Wolverine, is one of several significant upgrades Google plans for G Suite later this year.

I hope the rumor is true for no other reason than to end the suspense. The rumor was very strong back in 2007 when Google acquired GrandCentral, which provided a virtual number that could simultaneously ring multiple phones.

Google spent 18 months rebuilding the app to work in Google data centers. It released Google Voice in 2009, offering nearly identical features to those available from GrandCentral plus voicemail transcription. However, Google Voice was only available to Gmail users, not Google Apps users, and wasn't UCaaS. Google offered telephony and PSTN, but not a business system; Google Voice didn't include phones, contact centers, or even basic features such as transfer. (Even so, Gartner has been including Google in its UCaaS Magic Quadrant report.)

Also in 2009, Google acquired Gizmo5 Technologies. The acquisition provided Google expertise and capabilities with SIP and endpoints. All the pieces were coming together, and a UCaaS introduction seemed inevitable -- as was Google's likely success as an enterprise cloud provider. The now-retired Google Talk messaging app, at one time the most viable alternative to Skype, was frequently used for instant messaging between companies (Microsoft didn't acquire Skype until 2011). Google Apps was the primary alternative to Microsoft Office with a revolutionary thin-client, as-a-service twist (Microsoft didn't launch Office 365 until 2011).

Google offered cloud-delivered office productivity and communications accessible from its own browser. It also had Android, an operating system for phones. What could possibly go wrong?

We don't really know why Google never launched UCaaS, but things did get murky. Google Talk, with all of its APIs, was deprecated with the consumer-oriented Hangouts messaging service -- which Google eventually closed as well. Google has since launched two other video messaging apps, Allo and Duo.

Names also got a bit confusing over the years. Google Apps became G Suite in 2016. The service is part of a division first named Google Enterprise, then Google for Work, and now Google Cloud.

The folks behind GrandCentral and Google Voice left Google to create Dialpad (initially called Switch.co), which is one of the two partners, along with RingCentral, that Google currently recommends to G Suite customers. Several other UCaaS companies, such as Vonage, use these same APIs. Esna, now a part of Avaya, provided Google integration to Avaya and Cisco customers.

After a decade, the rumors of a Google UCaaS mostly subsided -- until this week. That seemed reasonable as the company has done fine without it. In addition to its namesake service for search, many of us regularly access Google services via YouTube, Android, Chrome, Maps, Gmail, and ChromeOS. That's a tremendous number of "endpoints" that Google mostly monetizes through advertising (about 90% of revenue).

Google certainly has the ability to launch an effective UCaaS service; the question is why now? Perhaps it has noticed that Microsoft is now selling more Office 365 licenses than traditional software licenses and expects subscribers will represent two-thirds of its Office customers next year. Perhaps it's because Facebook, its primary rival in advertising, has so effectively created an enterprise app (Workplace by Facebook) based on its consumer services. Or, maybe it's because Amazon, its primary competitor on cloud and speech, continues to launch enterprise SaaS apps, including contact center and single sign-on.

In 2015 Google hired Diane Greene, VMware co-founder and Alphabet board member, to head Google Cloud. More recently, it brought on Diane Bryant as the division's new COO. Bryant previously ran Intel's Data Center Group.

There's been a steady vibe of collaboration at G Suite lately. Google Drive became Drive for Teams, and Hangouts split into Meet (communications) and Chat (Slack-like messaging). A few months ago Google announced new huddle room video gear. Google also launched its Jamboard Digital whiteboard last year. Despite all of these changes, G Suite is still largely the same suite of minimally functional apps -- great for schools, but weak for enterprise.

But The Information reported that major enterprise updates are planned for G Suite this year starting with a new directory management solution similar to Active Directory. As for "Wolverine," it described that as a cloud-delivered PBX service similar to Skype for Business. Microsoft has announced plans to discontinue Skype for Business Online as it moves its Office 365 communications infrastructure to Teams. Perhaps Google sees an opportunity.

Building a global, scalable, feature-rich UCaaS app isn't trivial, and many companies have underestimated the effort. It seems odd that Google would attempt to create such a service rather than acquire one. Dialpad seems like an obvious acquisition target based on the GrandCentral and Google Voice history, location, and existing integration with G Suite.

Possibly unrelated, Polycom just announced its intent to acquire endpoint maker Obihai Technology -- and rumor has it that Google offices are equipped with Obihai endpoints.

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Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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