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Seeking "Openness", "Ideal UC" and "World Peace"

There is a stereotypical scene where a beautiful, albeit intellectually-challenged, pageant contestant says her goal is to work for world peace. , Silly. Laughable. A caricature. And yet, time and time again, we seem to accept the argument that achieving the equivalent of "world peace" for Unified Communications is more than a wish to be made after rubbing a magic lamp.

As a concept, a centralized, all knowing, all seeing, common signaling SESSION MANAGER or CONNECTION MANAGER is ideal (capitalization added for emphasis and to make the idea seem more important). Of course it is! Just like a money-tree, a free lunch and sex with no strings attached are ideal. Ideal but illusive and most often illusionary. Pull back the curtain and behind the great and powerful Oz is a meek and flawed human. Or switching to technical terms, while the concept of a universal connection/session manager is laudable, the reality of session manager software that works with the latest devices and products from all the key vendors is as illusory as the genie in the lamp and as difficult to achieve as world peace.

Standardization is important but standards define the lowest common denominator. This is unavoidable as it follows from the definition of a standard. To meet the standard, vendors need to provide specific features. Differentiation and innovation come from adding new, unique features. The standard becomes the minimum required, the cost for entry, a "cover charge" to get into the club.

When trying to determine if this "all-to-all" interconnection is required, many times even the questions become the problem. We become guilty of "leading the witness," which any lawyer will object to in a court of law. When we ask users, would like to be able to integrate all of your devices, are we surprised when the answer is "yes"? Or as my ten year-old son would say "No duh!".

The answer is correct; it is the question that is flawed. Of course, all things being equal, I would choose to be able to select and connect multiple vendor solutions and devices. But, and this is the key point, all things are not equal.

If a solution meets my requirements then truly I don't care, and shouldn't care, whether it includes one, two or two thousand vendors. More often than not we are forced to choose between a single-vendor solution that meets most of the needs and a multi-vendor solution that theoretically meets the needs but no one has actually implemented--or the solution is promised to integrate everything in the next version. Are two birds in the bush better than one in the hand? (See Nest of Breed for more bird references.)

Apple provides a proprietary operating system on proprietary hardware. There is exactly one source for the solution and the single source is even reticent to share future plans or directions. And despite this, millions of people, and I expect many of you readers, admire and purchase these solutions. Openness be damned, because the single vendor, proprietary solution meets your needs.

When Tom Nolle writes about the results of asking customers what would be the Ideal UC system, it is interesting and insightful. When in response Eric Krapf ponders "Can Enterprise UC ever be Ideal?" it too causes us to think. But I would contend some of the questions being asked are flawed. Are your customers looking for "ideal" or are they looking for solutions that best meet their requirements? Perhaps they mean they want the ideal system that meets their requirements. I contend that meeting requirements is the driving force. Ideal is a nice enough word that most people will say "sure", having an "ideal" system would be, well, ideal.

I find it telling that when Tom Nolle asks end users for examples of solutions that are close to "ideal" they mention Google Talk and Skype, two very proprietary systems. It seems technically-oriented individuals say they need UC systems that are "open", because they believe, I would argue incorrectly, that this will help them meet their end user requirements, while end users simply want things to work well together.

You may say, my customers want both. They want the ideal solution that meets their requirements, or perhaps they say they want a solution that meets their requirements that is also "open" (ideally). Tough luck. The world is harsh and you need to tell your customers they can't have both. Quite frankly they can't have the "ideal" system because no one really knows what this means! I can speculate what would be ideal (and Tom Nolle does a good job of summarizing what customers believe is ideal). It really doesn't matter though, since no vendor solution currently meets the "ideal" requirements.

When we ask users if they want everything to work with everything else, we create an expectation gap and perpetuate The Integration Myth. Because not everything works with everything and because in some cases the integration cost exceeds the business benefit, it is much better to ask users to prioritize the need for different devices and systems to integrate. The process of prioritization allows you to make appropriate trade-offs to deal with budget, timeline or other real-world constraints.

Seek only "ideal" and you risk becoming the caricature beauty pageant contestant: remember to wear your sash to work tomorrow.

Terms like "Open" and "Ideal" focus us on pondering philosophical questions that distract us from delivering real results and real solutions. Waiting for "ideal" means waiting forever; feel free to join the line of people waiting for Godot (incidentally this line is even longer than the line of people waiting for the iPhone 4s).

Yes, "UC may face the challenge of being fragmented into disconnected tools, not 'unified' at all." as Tom writes and Eric re-emphasizes. However, a worthwhile solution can be "unified" enough and "open" enough to provide real business benefits without everything needing to be unified. While we may not have complete "world peace" this shouldn't stop us from enjoying our small and hopefully peaceful neighborhood, even as we, like the many pageant contestants who have come before us, strive for world peace.