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Interoperability: From Email to UC
Over at our sister site Information Week, David Berlind has an extensive look at interoperability in the email world. It's a great, detailed piece that I think provides us with some cautionary thoughts when it comes to Unified Communications and interoperability.
Over at our sister site Information Week, David Berlind has an extensive look at interoperability in the email world. It's a great, detailed piece that I think provides us with some cautionary thoughts when it comes to Unified Communications and interoperability.First of all, it's notable that there'd even be a serious discussion about email in 2008. Didn't someone at VoiceCon say their kid called email "Something my grandfather uses"? But the truth, of course, is not that black and white, and as David's discussion makes clear, Gmail and Google's activities around email demonstrate that this is still an important--and evolving--medium. Furthermore, when you see IBM reporting Lotus revenues up 17% year-over-year, you can see that the journey from email to collaboration is well under way.
The crux of David's post on email interoperability is that Gmail fundamentally changed the way we organize--or the way our systems organize--email, for reasons that have to do with how the Internet, in the years between the mid-90s and the late 00s, changed the way we use computers to communicate. Specifically, we went from the highly structured, hierarchical "folder" means of organization, to the more amorphous, one-to-many organization enabled by "tagging."
What does this have to do with Unified Communications? The first, most obvious connection is that if Microsoft and IBM come to dominate the user interface for multimedia communications in the enterprise--as even many of the legacy PBX vendors seem to think they will--then we're essentially moving to a messaging paradigm for how our voice communications move around and are stored. You could argue that the real paradigm going forward is Instant Messaging rather than email, but I'm not sure that changes the problem, only the timing and the associated demands on the network for real-time performance. In any event, while there will certainly still be lots of voice-only interaction, at least in the realm of knowledge workers the idea is that voice will be a component of multi-media collaboration.
I'm not trying to suggest that the Folders vs. Tagging paradigm has a lot of direct relevance for voice communications, but the idea that communications paradigms shift over time is one that we've already seen play out in voice communications. SIP, remember, started out as an end-to-end protocol that was supposed to limit if not eliminate the need for a lot of intelligence in the middle of the communications stream--it was a "Stupid Network" sort of protocol. It morphed into something that was used as just the opposite, for call control and eventually as a kind of lingua franca for everything. I recently had a conversation with someone who used the term "SIP at the core," which I think might strike the protocol's original authors as something of an oxymoron. But that's what SIP has evolved into.
Email has also been held up as a classic example of a communications medium that used to be wholly proprietary, but eventually evolved into a standards-based, interoperable medium. David Berlind makes a point about how this view needs to be refined:
IMAP was designed with a 1996-style high-level of interoperability in mind. But it's 12 years later and, regardless of whose fault it is, that interoperability is no longer the high-level of interop that would be beneficial to all. Particularly since the proprietary solutions are such an inhibitor to choice on the mobile front. Fixing this problem -- whether those fixes involve repairs to the protocols, the servers/services, or the e-mail clients -- is imperative.
It seems more likely than not that our ideas about how to incorporate voice into other media will similarly evolve over the next decade. So I think the caution is, not only is interoperability a challenge today, more for business than technical reasons, but even if we achieve this goal, interoperability is a moving target.