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Putting a Millennial Face on UC

The workplace has become a psychological battlefield and the millennials have the upper hand, because they are tech savvy, with every gadget imaginable almost becoming an extension of their bodies. They multitask, talk, walk, listen and type, and text. And their priorities are simple: they come first.
-- Morley Safer

I cannot tell you the first time I heard the term "unified communications," but I do remember the first time I experienced something akin to it. It was back in my Northern Telecom days when I was working on a product that we called VISIT. I honestly can't remember exactly what VISIT stood for (Visual Interactive something something Telephony... I think), but it was basically integrated voice and video.

At first, VISIT was a Macintosh program that could make point-to-point, black-and-white video calls and control a Nortel digital telephone. As time went by, we added support for Windows, color display, video conferencing, call logs, and a few more bells and whistles. Technically, it was only unification from the standpoint of a single multimedia application; but it was a start, and you have to begin somewhere.

Since then, lots of other vendors have thrown their hats into the UC ring. Over the years, I've played with IBM's Sametime, Genband's Experious, Avaya's One-X and Communicator line of products, Microsoft's NetMeeting, Live Communications Server, Office Communication Server (OCS), Lync, and Skype for Business -- whew. These vendors have taken the car that the pioneers in UC created and drove it ten, twenty, and thirty miles further. However, as the various products evolved and changed, so did my thinking about what exactly is unified communications.

I remember a conversation I had with my youngest son a few years ago. The subject of email came up and he told me that he didn't use it because he had Facebook. To me, a middle-aged man whose job revolved around email, that didn't make any sense. I pressed him further and he said, "With Facebook I get pictures and videos. I know what my friend is doing and who he is with before I send a message. I don't get that with email."

Suddenly, I felt like a Frank Sinatra fan watching the Beatles perform on Ed Sullivan. The world had changed, and once again the younger generation was at the heart of that change. To my son, plain text and HTML is so yesterday. He requires an immersive communications experience and email plainly doesn't give him what he needs.

Since then, my son has mostly abandoned his PC for his smartphone. He still does Facebook, but he's added Snapchat, SlingShot, Instagram (who would have thought that a photo album could be a communications medium?), and several other applications way too cool for me to even know about. Of special interest to me, the telephone guy, is that voice is his last choice for communications. He would rather tag a photo than dial a telephone number.

The point of all this is to say that unified communications continues to evolve, and you can't look at it in the ways you and I once did. The Millennials have redefined what it means to share information between two or more people. The generation following the Millennials (I think they're called Generation Z, or Centennials) will shake things up even more.

Unified communications set out to tie voice, video, instant message, and presence into a single package. It's now focused on creating an entire ecosystem of players that loosely connect to provide a more immersive experience. It's not enough to know that someone is online. You want to know where she is, what her current mood is, who she is with, what she is listening to, what she just read, who just shared something with her, what she just shared, and how does she want to "speak" with you. Can you do all that with voice, video, and presence? I don't think so.

The established communications vendors such as Avaya, Microsoft, Mitel, Unify, and Cisco will continue to be relevant, but the upstarts that write the next big iOS or Android apps will increasingly play a huge role in UC. The winners will be the folks who understand that and create an open environment that fosters cooperation between all players. Better yet, they know how to take their technology out of the consumer space and into the enterprise space. The losers will put all their eggs into a single basket that will one day sound like Mitch Miller in a world of Bruno Mars. Trust me, you don't want to be that guy or gal.

Andrew Prokop writes about all things unified communications on his popular blog, SIP Adventures.

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