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Industry Ironies Abound

Henry James appreciated irony. "Don't underestimate the value of irony--it is extremely valuable," he wrote in the novel Washington Square, published in 1880. What James didn't comment on is irony's ubiquity. Ironic situations abound seemingly everywhere, and our industry is no exception.

Irony 1: "To paraphrase Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, and all those guys: I wish I had known this some time ago."--Roger Zelazny, Sign of the Unicorn

There's nothing new about the digital economy's reliance on electricity, but as digital's influence creeps into every crook and crevice of 21st-century life, the sheer scale of our dependence is changing how we act and think about the problem. But without a major breakthrough in how electricity is produced, and without a repeal of the laws of supply and demand, it's going to get more expensive to buy fuel for our digital economy.

Imagine what would happen if significant portions of the grid suddenly went out of commission. One such incident happened last April and the cause was deliberate: Snipers used AK-47s to shoot out 17 transformers at the PG&E Metcalf Transmission Substation, which is located near San Jose and thus an important power source for Silicon Valley. It took 27 days for the substation to get back up and operating. (You can find reports of the incident here; The Wall Street Journal's coverage includes a lengthy article--"Mystery Assault on Power Grid," Feb. 5, 2014, p. A1.)

Fortunately, this disruption had minimal impact--power was rerouted around the affected site and plants around the area increased their output. But after a year of investigating, the FBI declines to refer to the incident as a terrorist act, and PG&E refers to it as the work of vandals.

Mark Johnson, a former PG&E vice president of transmission, put more color into his analysis: "This wasn't an incident where Billy-Bob and Joe decided, after a few brewskis, to come in and shoot up a substation.... This was an event that was well thought out, well planned and they targeted certain components."

So here's the irony: As digital becomes more pervasive, electricity supplies become more critical. It's hard to imagine a scenario--at least in the short- and mid-term--where they won't chew up a larger share of the cost for both enterprise IT and Internet companies. And the power sources themselves remain vulnerable to both cyber-attacks and assaults on physical plants. As you plan for migration to UC and other new communications products and services, what's your plan for severe, long-lasting service interruptions?

Irony 2: "If you think this Universe is bad, you should see some of the others."--Philip K. Dick

Maybe there are universes where whatever they call "service providers" engage in armed conflict; here on Earth, things haven't reached that point, but our carriers and ISPs sure don't work together in harmony, and they have a nasty habit of treating their customers as pawns.

On the GigaOm website, Stacey Higginbotham has been trying "to discover the reasons behind what appears to be an extreme drop on broadband throughput for select U.S. Internet service providers during prime time. It's an issue that is complicated and shrouded in secrecy, but as consumer complaints show, it's becoming increasingly important to the way video is delivered over the Internet."

Last week, Higginbotham posted a report that describes how peering issues are affecting video services, for example Netflix. She writes: "Peering disputes have been occurring for years, but are getting more and more attention as the stakes in delivering online video are raised. The challenge for regulators and consumers is that the world of peering is very insular, and understanding the deals that companies have worked out in the past or are trying to impose on the industry today is next to impossible."

This issue has at least two implications for enterprises: Video services that you come up with that are aimed at your customers, and your organization's internal use of video. To the extent that an enterprise relies on private facilities, it might be able to mitigate this issue. But if it's going to plan to use a cloud or carrier-based service, the peering issue will be harder to avoid. It has long been difficult for customers to get satisfaction when they believe that their SLA terms aren't being met; things might get worse before they get better.

Irony 3: "As soon as you stop wanting something, you get it."--Andy Warhol

Unified Communications....need I say more?

We've been talking and writing about UC since 2007, and with good reason: It makes so much sense. Communications has been disjointed, and with all-IP networks, putting together tools like presence, messaging, conferencing and voice seems like an obvious next step. And the payoff is often huge if an enterprise can achieve the more complicated goal of integrating communications functionality with business processes and systems. But after five years, while UC is showing double-digit growth rates, the base remains relatively small.

Mobility is said to be a primary driver for UC, but I think that's not quite right. The most cost-effective and complete suite of UC apps is found on mobile devices, and the credit goes to Apple iOS and Google Android, not to the enterprise UC suppliers. When enterprise end users hear what UC is about, I'd be surprised if they don't respond that they already get those capabilities from their mobile device, and thus UC on the desktop is more of a "nice to have" than a "need to have."

The enterprise UC industry needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror. It's taken a long time for the product capabilities to match UC's hype, and the question is whether the ever-growing use of mobile devices has made that progress moot.

At Enterprise Connect 2014, we'll be analyzing the impact of all these ironies, along with other issues that are essential to your migration to next-gen communications and collaboration platforms, software and services. The irony is that despite an economy that still isn't running on all cylinders, Enterprise Connect '14 will have the largest expo in the event's 24-year history, and attendance is running ahead of last year by double-digit percentages. It'll be a sad irony if you don't join us.