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The New New Things at Enterprise Connect

I've been going to trade shows for a long time now, and I've been deeply involved in producing them for almost as long. Enterprise Connect 2017 was the first time I can remember where an exhibitor wanted to hide their booth.

It was all part of the secrecy around Amazon Web Services' (AWS's) announcement of Amazon Connect, its contact center-as-a-service offering. AWS kept the announcement tightly under wraps, refusing to release any detail until their scheduled Tuesday morning keynote from the company's VP of Worldwide Customer Service for, Tom Weiland. So what to do about the fact that the exhibit floor opened on Monday? Simple: Hide the booth until after the keynote. Up went the black velvet curtains, and AWS was able to save its big reveal for the Tuesday main stage.

Several people have pointed out that the most groundbreaking element of the new service may be its pricing model -- per-minute, rather than per-seat. That's a disruptive model, but equally important is that there's a precedent for Connect succeeding in this sort of new endeavor: It's AWS itself. With Connect, as with AWS, the Amazon parent company found it needed to build something from scratch in order to support the unique demands of the world's largest online retail operation. In the case of AWS, it was data centers, now in the case of Connect, it's contact center functionality.

This product-development model is being driven by Internet giants in other areas of IT. Most notably, Facebook has spearheaded the drive to commoditize IP switching via open source software and "white box" hardware, in order to better serve the infrastructure needs of its social media platform. But increasingly, the effects of this move are threatening the heretofore undisputed king of switching, Cisco.

Facebook is trying to make a similar move in enterprise collaboration by releasing its internal social networking service as the enterprise-focused Workplace product. Its ability to succeed in this market -- that is to say, in our market -- is less straightforward, in my opinion. That's because the enterprise communications and collaboration market is inherently more competitive than switching; customer demand is also more complicated and diverse; and the requirement for "enterprise-grade" functionality -- perceived as well as proven -- is more complex to satisfy. But despite these greater challenges, few are questioning that Facebook is a player that has to be taken seriously in enterprise collaboration.

Speaking of players that have to be taken seriously, what are we to make of Google, post-EC17, in the wake of the keynote by the company's director for real-time applications in G Suite, Scott Johnston? Johnston offered a keynote that demonstrated the enhancements Google is adding to its enterprise suite in a bid to catch up to Microsoft as a provider of productivity applications that embed and integrate with communications and collaboration functionality. But Microsoft's head start is so significant that it seems hard to imagine Google closing the gap unless it makes a major commitment to the effort both on the sales and product side.

I brought this up in our closing EC17 Locknote/Town Hall session, asking our panel a final, lightning-round style question: Is Google going to be a major player in enterprise communications and collaboration, or not? The group was split in some interesting ways: Melissa Swartz, a consultant with an extensive end user-focused practice, said, essentially, that you always have to take Google seriously. At the other end of the spectrum, Zeus Kerravala of ZK Research basically threw up his hands in frustration, declaring that after its prior abortive moves into communications, he was done expecting Google to make the concerted effort that would be needed.

Enterprise Connect 2017 saw plenty of other new players and technologies make their mark. Twilio founder and CEO Jeff Lawson used his keynote to demonstrate cool new communications functions you can build on the fly with application programming interfaces (APIs). My colleague Beth Schultz tackled the issues around APIs and team collaboration with main-stage vendor panels. And cloud was everywhere, with sessions drawing better attendance than at any previous Enterprise Connect.

These technologies may not be newly invented, but they're not yet widely adopted. That means they'll pose challenges that are new to many of us in the industry, and they'll develop in new directions that affect us all in unforeseen ways. It's truly one of the most exciting times we've seen in our industry in years. I'm excited to see how it all plays out at Enterprise Connect 2018 and beyond.

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