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Market Dominance as a Path to Interoperability

Many No Jitter articles have been written on the topics of open standards, interoperability, and session management, and many No Jitter readers have commented on these articles.

Most recently, Fred Knight wrote about the Interoperability Conundrum, and in the process of posting a comment to Fred's article, I came to conclude that market domination is the path to interoperability and standards adoption.

In a perfect world, perhaps all the major competing vendors would get together, sing Kumbaya, work out their differences and agree to common standards and interoperability between their products. This isn't going to happen.

Instead, I believe that customers will be best served when there is a clear "winner" in each key area of Unified Communications. This winner will then dictate standards (albeit de facto standards) that others will need to comply with in order "participate" in the market, and thus interoperability will greatly increase.

I would argue that history well supports my proposed approach.

Recall, that in the early 1980s you could not simply buy a printer and assume it would work with your computer software. In fact, software developers needed to do extra work to make sure their specific software program worked with different printers. This all changed when Microsoft Windows captured the majority of the desktop PC operating system business. With the market dominance of Windows, Microsoft was able to dictate driver standards to printer hardware vendors. The net result was that customers could buy any printer and it worked. Customers won, not because all the printer hardware vendors agreed to interoperate, but because the vendors were forced into submission. As a printer vendor, if you didn't write a Windows print driver you went out of business.

There was also a time, prior to 2001, when you couldn't necessarily download any song instantly. Thank Apple for dominating the music publishers and forcing compliance. Clearly customers won.

VHS trumped Beta; customers won. Blu-ray beat out HD-DVD, indecision evaporated, customers won.

Market dominance allows the dominating vendor to adopt the "my way or the highway" attitude, which ultimately improves interoperability as non-dominant vendors are forced to interoperate in order to survive.

As an alternative, some have argued that enterprise customers may have enough clout to force vendors to cooperate. This also isn't going to happen. Any one enterprise customer only cares about getting their selected components to integrate. Once this happens they will give up the fight. It is only the push for, and spoils of, market dominance that will yield a de facto interoperability standard.

When looking at the necessary level of market dominance required, it is clear that the dominance does not need to be complete in order to foster interoperability; it simply has to be an undeniable victory over a material chunk of the market. Both Microsoft Windows and Apple iOS have dominated respective portions of the market. As such, both Microsoft and Apple can define "their standards", other vendors follow and customers win. To continue the printer driver story from above, most printers now ship with both Windows and Apple print drivers due to the Microsoft/Apple dominance.

Because the unified communications market is so broad in terms of definition and feature set, the market is extremely "fractured". Many vendors have significant share in micro-markets but there is no one vendor who is dominating the overall UC market.

And with trends such as the "consumerization of IT" and "migration to the cloud," many more non-traditional vendors are offering pieces of the UC puzzle, further fracturing the overall market.

What does this all mean for businesses, vendors and resellers?

For businesses: Document and prioritize your requirements, be skeptical of "best of breed" solutions and don't assume there is an interoperability "silver bullet". Until there are clear winners in more areas of UC, you still need to "minimize pain" as opposed to "maximize gain" as you look to integrate multi-vendor solutions.

For resellers: Be careful what level of interoperability you promise, lest you end up dealing with dissatisfied customers. Not everything currently integrates or interoperates with everything else. See The Integration Myth for more details and cautionary tales. Multi-vendor, desktop-to-traditional-telephony integration is especially troublesome. Desktop-to-PBX solutions such as Cisco CuciLync and Avaya AES (or Avaya Aura or Avaya ACE) might be perfect for your customers, but a single vendor solution might be better. Avoid "over-promising," especially with solutions you have not deployed before.

For vendors: In your corporate strategy, be realistic about the areas where you can achieve market dominance. In other areas, you should pursue interoperability, even when this means supporting a competitor's standards. If you are not going dominate, you are eventually going to lose. It's like pulling off a Band-Aid: You can do it quick and get it over with, or choose to extend the inevitable pain over a much longer period of time. Losing slowly does not diminish the loss, and it wastes resources that could have been redirected.

Specifically for vendors, if you need to integrate with an email, contact and calendaring solution, realize that whether you like it or not, for the vast majority of businesses this means integrating with a Microsoft solution (Outlook/Exchange, on-premise or in the Cloud).

If your customers require mobile solutions, you must support Android and iPhone. Certainly for the enterprise market segment you still need to support RIM BlackBerry devices (despite the recent "mindshare" decline for RIM). For example, even Microsoft, with its hyper-focused "Windows everywhere" strategy, has committed to delivering Lync clients for iPhone, Android and BlackBerry in addition to supporting Windows Phones.

When it comes to desktop instant messaging and presence, I believe vendors should work to integrate with Microsoft OCS/Lync (potentially for other communication modalities as well). Microsoft OCS/Lync with its integration to Windows Live Messenger, integration to Xbox Live and future integration with Skype has likely achieved a dominant desktop client position. If I were Cisco, Avaya, Mitel or others, I would figure out a way to integrate/federate my desktop tools with Microsoft.

Market domination as the path to interoperability may not be the most egalitarian solution; however, as the author Michael Crichton once said of the alternative consensus approach...

Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled.

If you would like to respond to my proposed approach, please comment on this website or debate me via twitter >@kkieller