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Positioning for the Cloud

As an industry analyst, I follow vendor announcements and participate in vendor briefings on a regular basis. In fact, it's not unusual to have four or five briefings a week. Usually the week prior to and during Enterprise Connect is the peak season for UC announcements, with little or no activity occurring around the holiday season and announcements spread out through the rest of the year. Last week was a particularly busy week, with five vendor briefings and several announcements, primarily about cloud offerings. The number of cloud-related announcements in January gives me good reason to expect 2014 to be the year of the "cloud shakeout," with vendors and service providers jockeying for position and trying to get the attention of customers.

While none of the announcements were in and of themselves earth shattering, they shed light on the hyper-competitive nature of the cloud market and what we have to look forward to in the coming months. The cloud vendors are trying hard to position themselves by highlighting their differentiations in a number of key areas, including:

* Contact center: 8x8 announced an upgrade to its cloud-based Virtual Contact Center (VCC) offering. VCC is available as a single point solution or as an integrated component of 8x8's Virtual Office service. 8x8 is one of the few pure cloud vendors (as opposed to legacy providers that also have cloud offerings) that has a full contact center offering (most offer "ACD-lite" capabilities). The company highlighted the fact that "mid-size and distributed enterprises worldwide are increasingly adopting cloud-based alternatives to traditional PBX and call center systems," and many are "choosing to outsource both solutions from a single vendor, deploying business VoIP phone service throughout the organization and call center services in one or more departments." 8x8 noted that they will be making a series of enhancements to VCC, clearly looking to set itself apart from some of its competitors that lack contact center capabilities.

* User dashboard and interface: Fonality is showing strong momentum and customer growth--the company announced that it is experiencing a growth rate of more than 25% in its subscriber base. Fonality noted that its growth and momentum is based on its strong suite of products, including its Heads Up Display user interface, which provides a unified dashboard to enable users to access all their communication tools--phone, chat, email, SMS, voicemail and even call center capabilities--in one place. (Similar to 8x8, Fonality is one of the few cloud vendors with a full, integrated contact center offering.) In its press release, Fonality highlighted several customers that switched from other vendors to Fonality in order to more easily access voice and UC capabilities.

* Moving upmarket: RingCentral, a cloud leader in the SMB space, has been moving upmarket and just launched its enterprise solution, RingCentral Office Enterprise Edition. The enterprise service includes "RingCentral Meetings, a multi-point HD video conferencing and screen sharing technology built for smartphones, tablets and computers." RingCentral Meetings offers HD video for up to 25 participants, and Web share. Until now, RingCentral was missing some of the key elements that enterprise customers require, and it will be adding capabilities to enable the company to move upmarket. Expect to see a series of announcements as RingCentral adds more features and capabilities that enterprises are looking for.

* Social: IBM gave analysts a peek at some of the announcements that will be made at its Connect 2014 conference in Orlando this week. IBM's cloud directions for 2014 include enhanced offerings such as a new Web mail experience; meetings and chat with improved audio and video; a strengthened guest model; and mobile everywhere. IBM has been evolving its IBM Connections collaboration solution, which supports cloud, premise, or hybrid deployments, to become "the leading social platform," featuring social networking, mail, meetings, chat, document sharing, and more.

* End-to-end networking services: Ricoh announced last week that it was acquiring mindSHIFT from Best Buy. Primarily known as one of the largest IT outsourcing and cloud services providers serving small and mid-size businesses, mindSHIFT also has a hosted VoIP and UC offering called cloudSHIFT. mindSHIFT's expertise is in its data network, and sees VoIP as an application that rides on the IP network. It has two hosted platforms based on Cisco and Broadsoft, the main difference being that the Cisco platform offers contact center capabilities, while the Broadsoft platform doesn't.

Like most other cloud vendors, mindSHIFT offers business class VoIP, unlimited local and long distance, audio conferencing, find me/follow me, attendant console, E911, voice mail, and more. cloudSHIFT augments the company's data services and is not sold as a standalone offering, and as such the company focuses on the end-to-end network service and deploys facilities to ensure QoS. This is different than many of the pure-cloud VoIP and UC providers that can't always ensure QoS.

* WebRTC: While naysayers point out that the WebRTC standard has yet to be finalized, some vendors are already positioning themselves as early market leaders. Genband introduced Smart Office 2.0, which it describes as providing a "unified communications experience delivered on an array of business devices and for the first time via WebRTC compliant web browsers." Smart Office 2.0 can be delivered as a cloud-based offer from service providers or deployed in an enterprise data center.

Genband notes that the Smart Office 2.0 soft-client is "the first WebRTC compliant multimedia user experience that delivers the premium suite of voice, video, conferencing, chat, presence and collaboration features through a browser." Carl Baptiste, SVP Enterprise Solutions, demonstrated to me how easy it is to set up a conference on a tablet device, and to escalate interactions from chat, to a voice call, to a video call with doc sharing using the WebRTC-enabled browser, and without downloading a plug-in or software.

The central theme of all of these announcements is that the new playing field is the cloud, and vendors have to work hard to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. The field is getting crowded, so expect to see more jockeying for position as vendors stake their claims in areas such as vertical market expertise, customer support, business process integration, and more. These announcements show that while the barrier to entry seems exceedingly low, the barrier to market leadership may be much higher for cloud companies.

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Learn more about cloud communications at Enterprise Connect Orlando 2014!