Has User Behavior Made UC Irrelevant?
We don't need "unified" communication, we need "sociofied" communication, that better aligns with the way people really use these services.
We argue about UC technology. We argue about what vendor has the best solution, and whether a hosted or private or cloud model is best. But we might be ignoring the biggest question that UC faces: Have we simply outgrown it? At the very least, does UC have to grow along with the market if it's to remain useful?
The notion of "unifying" something implies prior disunity. A few years ago, when the term started to gain popularity, we had more than enough disunity in communication to go around. Most voice communications used hard phones. Email and instant messaging were supported by discrete client software, often by different providers, and always as independent applications. All of these possible conduits to reach someone created the vision of maddened users juggling boxes and whipping their heads between screens. Pulling everything into a single app, a single GUI with one set of operating practices, had to be better.
Well, maybe. I still have a separate key-system phone on my desk, and you probably have a phone too. I have a mobile phone, I have at least two or three different Internet voice and chat services and a couple of email services to boot. With all of this supposed disunity, I'm not feeling much pressure to unify anything. That most people feel the same is proven by the fact that we're still trying to promote a UC revolution. Why isn't it working?
The first problem is that what users feared about the early explosion of communications options was change, not disunity. Some of my older relatives still turn off their mobile phones (if they have them) at home, because having two different things ringing is confusing. The thing is, younger people today grow up with mobile, wireline, and IP voice and message services in happy coexistence. Some people use three or four different ones in a single day, and they're not bothered because they got used to it. Every day, the people who needed UC to insulate them from changes in communications practices are retiring. The newly hired have no need for insulation.
The second place where behavior changes are threatening the UC value proposition is presence or context management. I admit it, I'm a serial communicator. I don't want to juggle multiple conversations at once, to have my work or thinking interrupted by IMs or calls or Tweets. Again, though, this is an old-fashioned view. The new hires of today are uncomfortable watching TV shows if you don't superimpose Tweets on the screen to offer more stimulation (it drives me nuts and I stop watching the show). So do you suppose that these people are looking for a way to serialize their communications interactions? They'd probably rather have Tweets superimposed on unified communications panels!
Speaking of Tweets, we can't forget social networking. Twitter and Facebook and Google+ all provide us with a totally different notion of communication than we're used to. Instead of "conversations" we have flash mobs, virtually speaking. The multiplicity/simultaneity of social networking argues against any notion of a nice arbitrated communications framework. In fact, every social network is both a "unity" in itself (it represents one of several communities you may join for different reasons and use to stay in touch with different people), and a force against UC-style unification. None of the social networks want to be subsumed into some universal client; they're all about brand-building.
Then there's mobility, and mobile broadband in particular. Mobile devices, particularly smartphones, have totally changed communications behavior, but they've also changed human behavior, and these changes are going to be very difficult to harmonize with traditional UC notions.
First-off, nobody talks anymore. Youth today chat instead, and chatting is something that's not aggregated into "calls" but rather broken into little atomic exchanges. Look at UC today and what you see is voice communications with some other stuff wrapped around it. Look at youth today and what you see are people who'd love to get a data-only mobile phone because they don't want to talk at all.
Then there's our overall relationship with "communication". Sitting at your desk waiting for the phone to ring or for an email or IM to arrive makes you a tethered servant of communications services. Mobile users live in two realities, their real-world and their social-sphere, because they have their phones with them at all times and build these devices into their lives. That makes these users a lot more tolerant of distractions, because pretty much everything in one world is distracting them from everything in the other.
We don't need "unified" communication, we need "sociofied" communication. There's little or no chance that a simple voice-centric model of unifying communications is ever going to get traction, in my view. The fact is that what people want today is either something centered on collaboration or centered on a social-networking model.
An "SC" model would focus on the status/presence of users, the context of exchanges, and support an activity/project framework around which to collect activity. How the communication then takes place is pretty much a plug-in.
If the UC of today can accept the reality of SC, then something good can happen to current vendors. If it cannot, then the future of communications will evolve based on something that's currently outside UC/UCC, and everyone in the space will have lost a major opportunity and accepted a truly major risk of declining influence and revenue.
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