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Line Between UC, Team Collaboration Blurring

A couple years ago when team collaboration apps first entered the scene pretty much every conversation I had about them needed to be prefaced by how they're different from UC in general and corporate IM in particular.

It was -- and in some cases still is -- a useful starting point for discussions. After all, both take the form of desktop, Web, and mobile apps that let individuals or small groups of workers message each other and (depending on the app) share screens, launch VoIP and video calls, and access a more or less similar set of communications and collaboration features.

UC vendors tend to draw a distinction between venerable old corporate IM apps and shiny new team collaboration apps. The one is for quick, typically internal, often informal, communications. The other is more project-oriented, with conversations and documents shared in a persistent digital workspace.

However, this distinction is blurring... and for some it's disappearing entirely.

Examples of corporate IM and team collaboration apps

Keep Separate, Use Both

For the past 10 or so years buddy list-driven IM apps have been the launch pad from which end users fire off text-based chat, VoIP, desktop video, and screen-sharing sessions that are fundamental to the UC experience. Enterprises and SMBs have made significant investments in this software, whether in the form of corporate IM software deployed on premises or more advanced (and more expensive) hosted services plans that deliver more than just telephony.

Generally speaking, UC solutions vendors want to ensure customers that their money was well spent... that they can continue using the same UC tools they have invested in while adding new team collaboration apps to the mix as needed.

This has resulted in experts giving advice of this sort: "Use Cisco Jabber for real-time collaboration, Cisco Spark for team-collaboration, and Cisco WebEx for meeting-collaboration. Having all three of these tools in your collaboration toolbox keeps your communication clear and constant, making your business and project successful."

And in a Microsoft context: "Do you prefer brief, face-to-face meetings before getting to work? Then, Skype for Business might be the solution. But if your team prefers quick check-in's [sic] and persistent, ongoing conversations (especially about information that isn't time-sensitive), then Microsoft Teams would probably be the best fit."

This "different apps for different types of collaboration" is all well and good for you, me, and other folks who enjoy mulling over these sorts of things. But not all users will spend time thinking it through. Many will just want to get on with their jobs without fussing over which messaging app is appropriate for each and every message they want to jot off.

Similar pushback can come from CIOs and IT departments for whom comms and collaboration is just one of many other things about which they need to worry. Investing in and supporting two or three or more messaging apps could result in all sorts of complications relating to deployment, training, and support.

One's As Good As the Other

The reason I'm thinking about this now is some conversations I had with Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise. The company rebooted its team collaboration app strategy late last year when it released Rainbow. It's still something of a work in progress. The free plan launched and the more feature-rich paid plan is coming soon. The Web and mobile apps currently lack some essential features, which, again, will be addressed by midyear.

Source: Rainbow blog

Overall it either has or will soon have many of the trappings you'd expect from a team collaboration app: persistent, shared workspaces; file storage; app integrations; etc. Like Spark, Rainbow has optional integration with on-prem telephony systems for PSTN calling. Unlike Spark, this hybrid configuration supports multiple vendors' systems, namely those from Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, Cisco, Unify, and soon, Avaya. I'll go into a bit more detail soon on it when I revise my team collaboration overview for the third time.

But what I'd like to hone in on here is how Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise isn't going through the usual "use IM for this and team apps for that" gyrations. It's telling customers that if they're looking for an IT-friendly alternative to Slack, then they should use Rainbow. And if they're looking for a UC client that does regular traditional IM and presence, then they should use Rainbow. After all, Rainbow users can see each other's presence, and if the app integrates with a PBX, then that presence info takes into account whether people are on the phone. Chat sessions are essentially shared workspaces with just one individual. But outside of the workspace being persistent, how different is that from a regular IM session?

Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise, of course, has long had a UC app -- OpenTouch Conversation -- that does corporate IM. It's the standard way its enterprise and SMB customers get corporate IM on both desktop PCs and mobile devices. It is now positioning Rainbow as an alternative to this. Instead of purchasing OpenTouch and running it on a server, customers can instead subscribe to Rainbow and use it as their UC app.

At a technical level, Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise isn't doing anything fancy here. It doesn't offer one Rainbow plan that's UC-centric and another that's just for team collaboration. There's just the one app developed by a company that's being less prescriptive of how its customer use it. Would there be any difference if a Cisco customer used Spark instead of Jabber for internal IM, or a Microsoft customer used Teams instead of Skype for Business? I really don't think so. The difference lies more in how vendors are advising their customers on where new team collaboration apps fit into the larger spectrum of UC software and services.

So which approach is better? Adopt a discrete team collaboration app, and teach users when and when not to use it instead of corporate IM or other messaging apps? There's considerable wisdom in selecting and employing the right tool for the job at hand. But there's also a danger in providing employees with too many and too specialized a set of tools. This will be a good option for businesses that have already deployed UC clients to many employees and now want to make team collaboration available to a subset of them.

Or is it better to provide users with one app that spans both traditional IM and new-fangled team collaboration? This will certainly be easier to adopt and deploy since you're consolidating multiple messaging apps into one. But it could confuse users not used to such an all-in-one approach to messaging. This will be best for businesses with little or no UC clients in use at present.

So one approach is as good as another depending on how widely an enterprise has deployed and employees use traditional UC apps.

Learn more about next-generation messaging and team collaboration trends and technologies at Enterprise Connect 2017, March 27 to 30, in Orlando, Fla. View the Next-Gen Messaging & Team Collaboration track, and register now using the code NOJITTER to receive $300 off an Entire Event pass or a free Expo Plus pass.

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