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The Impact of Software on Unified Communications

If WebRTC was the Day 1 theme of Enterprise Connect, it seems that "software" was the Day 2 theme. The day started off with Cisco making a number of announcements regarding its software positioning. Specifically the company announced the following:

* Software that can understand the type and the amount of resources required to support a collaborative session and then adjust those resources on the fly. This will allow customers to optimize resources, which ultimately makes collaboration more cost effective.

* Software integration of TelePresence and WebEx integration, which enables customers to extend video outside the organization.

* Medianet software integration into Jabber and TelePresence. The software automatically syncs the video endpoints with the network and provides greater levels of visibility.

Historically a hardware-first company, I believe that the mindset at Cisco has turned a corner when much of the company is thinking "software first". Obviously, the company will continue to try and differentiate itself in the hardware area as well, but it appears many of the new leaders in the collaboration area, such as Rowan Trollope, are trying to create differentiation for Cisco through software.

Later that morning I was invited onto a panel with Vidyo, Twillio and Fred Knight to discuss the disruptiveness of the shift to software in the area of communications. Although the panel was only 30 minutes (Hint: Fred, give us at least 45 next year), the discussion was very lively and it is clear that the move to software will fuel another wave of innovation for UC.

The "software-ization" of UC should allow for much faster innovation to occur. Consider what happened when computing moved from a hardware dominated mainframe world to a software dominated client server computing model. All of a sudden the door was opened for any software vendor, large or small, to create applications that live on top of the underlying operating system. Computing was forever changed and new capabilities we never dreamed possible were created.

In fact, if you look across IT, software based virtualization has redefined the world of computing and the data center as a whole. The only areas of corporate IT that haven't changed are the network and communications. Software defined networks (SDN) has the potential to change the network and, it's my belief that UC is on the verge of such a transition.

I've often thought of UC as more of a platform rather than a set of applications. This means that UC shouldn't give users more applications on the desktop, instead it should give workers more capabilities in the applications they're already using. Examples would be being able to launch a web meeting right from a CRM application, or add video capabilities to a vertical application.

Today, workers need to exit the application they're in to start a collaborative session. This is annoying with desktops, but in the mobile world, continually having to shift between different applications to collaborate is difficult, if not impossible to do, depending on what the user is doing. Software allows for UC functions to reside inside commonly used business applications, changing the very nature of those applications.

Software also allows for better "unification" of UC. The reason I say this is that we really don't have UC today. Instead we have a bunch of partially unified applications such as video, web conferencing and call control. Each of these has integration with a few other UC applications, but invariably users need to use multiple "UC" tools to collaborate properly.

Taking a software or platform approach means companies can rapidly build collaborative applications by tying together the necessary platforms and then embedding these capabilities into business applications. This should allow IT to give different departments only the collaboration tools they need to do their job, rather than giving everyone everything. Ultimately this would lead to a very fluid, dynamic work style where users are able to quickly establish a collaborative session and then be able to bring in whatever users or content is required.

Innovation happens fastest when incumbent vendors are being pushed by smaller vendors looking to disrupt a legacy market. This was almost impossible to do when UC products were predominantly hardware based, as the barrier to entry was too high. Today, we're seeing a number of start-ups such as fellow panelists Vidyo and Twilio emerge, and that's bringing new capabilities and use cases to the entire UC industry.

Incumbent vendors may feel threatened by this but instead should look at it is a way for UC to become a "rising tide" where all boats are lifted, and that's good for the industry as a whole.

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