IoT in UC: Nothing More Than a Buzzword?
UC marketing people love buzzwords. Well I guess all marketing people love buzzwords, but UC marketing people like them so much they'll even latch on to buzzwords that have nothing to do with what they're selling. I've seen this before, so I'm always on the lookout for references to irrelevant buzzwords, and I'm starting to wonder if we're not seeing this scenario play out again with all the UC vendor noise around the Internet of Things, or IoT.
The idea of IoT or having intelligent devices and supervisory systems operating over communications links has been around for a long time, but it's about to launch into the stratosphere due to a confluence of technical developments. My first encounter with this idea came in working on supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems early in my career. We used these things to monitor and control pipelines, remote pumping stations, electrical substations, and lots of other industrial applications all connected over low-speed teletype circuits.
In those early SCADA systems, the remote terminals were relatively low-tech (do you know what a "contact closure" is?), the networks low-capacity, the supervisory systems rudimentary, and things couldn't move around because they were all connected by wires. Still it beat the heck out of sending a guy 50 miles in a truck to reset a circuit breaker or close a valve.
As I said, a number of converging factors are reinforcing the idea that IoT's time has come. Certainly low-cost processors and components like accelerometers and GPS receivers whose costs have been driven down by the smartphone revolution play a role, but key among these is the range of wireless network technologies. Those would include familiar technologies like 3G/4G cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and ZigBee, but the list is growing by the day.
New entrants include 5G (that will support a 10x increase in device density over 4G), Bluetooth Mesh, Wi-Fi HaLow, and cellular-based NarrowBand IoT. We could also mention beacons and indoor location capabilities like Wi-Fi Certified Location, which will integrate location capabilities into access points without the use of separate location appliances.
Beyond all the technical elements, however, is imagination. Tech savants are dreaming up services and capabilities that incorporate IoT at a pace akin to what we have seen in the mobile app and social media industries (have you been following Snap's IPO?).
While I see tremendous opportunities for network service providers, smartphone apps, IoT terminal devices, and the back-office control systems to power all of this, what I don't see is a major role for UC suppliers. One of my colleagues recently suggested that maybe an IoT building monitoring system might trigger phone calls to alert personnel to a condition that requires immediate attention. I responded that I think a text or an alert on a dashboard would be a more likely scenario, and in any event, I don't think checking your voicemail for fire alarms would be very productive -- nobody checks voicemail, especially if they smell smoke.
However, a lack of a clear path to any meaningful product is never a deterrent to UC marketing types; if "IoT" is a hot acronym, it runs on page one above the fold. Rowan Trollope, who headed Cisco's Collaboration Group, is now SVP & GM - Internet of Things (IoT) and Applications Division at Cisco Systems. In Cisco's defense, at least it makes WLAN products (two different flavors) and other hardware devices, and last year it bought Jasper Technologies, which makes an industry-leading IoT service platform for enterprises and service providers. And some of its newer collaboration tools, like the Spark Board, incorporate IoT-like capabilities.
I'm not sure what the rest of the UC guys intend to bring to the table. IoT really doesn't have a lot to do with phones, and phones seem to be the center of the universe for too many of them.
I've been through this before, so I'm particularly sensitive to the idea of marketing as the process of touting great ideas that have nothing to do with a company. I'm talking about a replay of what we've seen happen with mobile UC. For years, every UC speaker had to tell us how great the iPhone was and how users were wild about the interface Apple created; I assume Apple appreciated the plugs, but it never gave kudos to UC vendors (i.e., "Sorry, but do I know you?"). All of that was true, of course, but that didn't help them sell those dopey mobile UC apps they were peddling!
Ironically, we now have Apple's CallKit, which will allow mobile UC vendors to build a decent user interface using the iPhone's native dialer. Brent Kelly of KelCor and I just finished a survey of CallKit-based mobile UC apps, and guess what: Of the old-line UC vendors, only Cisco, Microsoft, and Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise even have a CallKit-based mobile UC app, and only Cisco's scored among the leaders! Which vendors are adopting CallKit? Two-thirds of the CallKit adopters were newer UCaaS providers like RingCentral, 8x8, Fuze, and Vonage (powered by BroadSoft). You can also add Facebook and WhatsApp to that list, but what would you expect?
Well I guess the legacy UC camp doesn't need CallKit, because it's on to the new bandwagon -- not that the bandwagon will notice anyone playing off key. The reason I'm watching this is that later this month, at Enterprise Connect, I'll be hosting a panel on IoT featuring representatives from AT&T, Miercom, NEC, and Mitel. (By the way, Brent and I will be reviewing the results of that CallKit survey I mentioned in a session we're co-moderating, "Optimizing Apple in Your Enterprise." )
For the moment, I'm reserving judgment on whether IoT is something real in UC or just another attempt to jump on a bandwagon where the UC vendors have nothing to contribute. I'll wait until I hear what our panelists have to say. I know that AT&T already has 10s of millions of IoT devices connected, and NEC has a lot of IoT initiatives scattered across the different business units and branded its artificial intelligence technologies NEC the Wise, but it's hard to see where the UC offerings might fit in.
So when the UC vendors want to bend your ear about IoT, ask how their mobile initiatives are doing.
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