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Networking and The Third State

Columbus, when he first landed in the Bahamas, didn't see anything unusual enough to dispel his illusion that he'd reached India. Had he landed instead in 21st-Century Manhattan, he'd probably have turned around and run. Some revolutions have to be judged by their end-game to know they're revolutionary, and that's probably what we're going to see with the current revolution in enterprise communications. The trends we know and love are being swept aside by new industry dynamics, not the least of which is a whole new set of market-leaders who will redefine competition, products, and our networks.At the root of all of this is the increased reliance of all providers of network equipment and services on consumers rather than on enterprises for spending. Enterprises have traditionally planned technology use two or three years out, but consumers plan for the evening or maybe the next day-especially youth. A market that's driven by that mindset is volatile and demands extreme flexibility.

The "youthening" of telecom has its most significant impact on the mobile space. In 2000, CIMI Corporation found that people tended to recognize two communications behavioral states: "home" and "work/school". Mobile ubiquity created a Third State, "Out", and this Third State represents all the situations where we're relatively free from obligation/supervision fetters. It's this Third State that is creating the direct pressure for communications change. A service at its most flexible meets an audience at its most receptive in terms of new ideas, patterns of behavior, and possible directions of interest. The Third State will change everything.

Apple pioneered in exploiting the Third State, with the iPhone and now the iPad. Perhaps the most significant thing about these devices is their "app-centric" design. Basic communications and information needs are encapsulated in a simple application that's invoked through an icon or widget. You can change your apps to suit your mood, your goals, and your needs. That makes the iPhone responsive to the demands for flexibility in the Third State, and not by demanding we use a generalized tool whose use in mobile mode can be complicated (surf the web to find restaurants while driving, and you'll see what I mean).

Appliances are the key to the Third State. You carry a gadget that represents your overall social/behavioral direction (phone or tablet) and you customize it with applications to tune its features to exactly what you plan to do, or what you're prepared to select from the range of social options that present themselves. That means appliance vendors are in a commanding position, which is why Apple's iPad provoked Google's Android and even HP's Palm buy. It's why Microsoft is trying hard to get traction for Phone 7 or its Kin approach.

Enterprise communications is a subset of social communications; remember that "work" is another one of those states of behavior. We even name communications equipment after it; the "business phone" or "my business email". This discrete identity for enterprise communications is why we have a business market for services and devices, but this discrete identity is now going away. If the Third State is infinitely flexible, supported by responsive appliances, and connected with ubiquitous mobile broadband, then why isn't "working" just another social option that we exercise while we're "out"?

This Third Wave absorption of the other waves is inevitable, and with that comes the absorption of traditional enterprise communications powerhouses by appliance players. Microsoft collaboration; who cares? There's an app for it. Avaya UC? Another app. And guess what? Nobody really remembers who did those apps. A complex decision function, a social agenda, a collaboration, a meeting--all reduced to a little icon on the Appliance of the Day. When the worker picks up the mobile phone, they know whose phone it is, but not who provided the icon.

The best way to communicate within your enterprise is the way your workers naturally communicate, and we're building an appliance-centric, behavior-flexible, framework in the Third State that is defining just that. As that framework expands it will subsume all of the current communications and collaboration tools into icons. A new body, the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum (UCIF) hopes to define the roles for interoperating among various sets of clouds, tools, and even video formats. It may well be that this sort of standards process will be the thing that cuts the final cord. With open standards, any application that supports a social communications community can interact with any other, and so there are no vendor enclaves or captive customer bases.

UCIF or like standards won't drive the process, though; the Third State is still an appliance revolution. It affords Google an unusual advantage because they have both appliances (which they're working hard to expand, as their recent I/O Conference shows, into TV and tablets) and network-hosted services that can be invoked easily as applications/icons. But Apple is building its own data centers, and HP's purchase of Palm and its redirection of its tablet effort to WebOS shows that they've figured out where the opportunity is. Watch out Microsoft, IBM, Avaya, and other traditional enterprise vendors. There's a new kid in town.