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Quantum Mechanics & Enterprise Communications: More Alike Than You Think


While enterprise communications managers have been dealing with the mysteries of telephony, voice, video, and workflow integration for over a decade, physicists have been resolving our subatomic world for over a century. (Albert Einstein received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for his 1907 paper on the photoelectric effect. He published his general theory of relativity in 1915.)

A century of developments in physics and quantum mechanics began with the disruptive realization that classical Newtonian mechanics, accepted for over 200 years, could not explain electromagnetic fields. This ultimately lead to the special and general theories of relativity and even the famous E = mc2 equation attributed to Einstein. In enterprise communications, disruptive elements began with the transition from TDM-based PSTN and ISDN voice and video to IP-based networks, and continued with ever-increasing functionality and integration to the needs of enterprise workers.

Here are five principles that play in both of these seemingly unconnected universes.

Ninety years ago physicists became comfortable with the dual nature of light. Light (as well as the electron) has the properties of both waves and particles (known as photons). Electrons undergo diffraction and can interfere with each other as if they were waves, but they also act as small masses with electric charges. Quantum mechanics is an attempt to explain these apparently contradictory properties exhibited by matter. However, physicists have yet to solve the enigma of wave-particle duality.

Unified communications exhibits a duality as well. With presence-based voice, video, and chat capabilities, UC enables information workers to reach the right people at the right time to speed decision making, bring in timely advice, confer with colleagues, and reduce cycle times associated with a variety of transaction tasks. UC is a productivity enhancer. But UC also facilitates train-of-thought interruptions. Results from several academic studies show that interruptions increase errors and lead to lower-quality outputs while also requiring additional time (contextual jitter) for the interrupted person to get back into the mental flow. Left unchecked, UC can be a productivity killer.

Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

Introduced in 1927, by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg (1932 Nobel Prize in Physics for the creation of quantum mechanics), this principle states that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa. The uncertainty principle is inherent in the properties of all wave-like systems; it arises in quantum mechanics due to the wave nature of all quantum objects.

In UC, the more precisely a solution's functionality can be known, the less precisely its ease of use can be determined. Like mass and velocity, ease of use and functionality seem to be inversely proportional.

Schrodinger's Cat
Schrödinger's cat is a thought experiment, a paradox devised by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger (1933 Nobel Prize in Physics) in 1935. The scenario involves a cat that may be simultaneously alive and dead, a state known as a quantum superposition. This is the result of being linked to a random subatomic event that may or may not occur (suggesting a particle exists in all states at once until it is observed, and then it isn't).

In many senses, video conferencing is today's Schrodinger's cat -- alive and dead at the same time. Video conferencing is alive because the industry is rapidly moving from thousands of users to millions of users. It is alive because video is becoming the new voice, and because it is becoming a ubiquitous feature add-on to vertical applications and to general enterprise communications solutions -- aka, UC.

But video is dead for those vendors that have built business models on high-end conference room integration or those that were accustomed to million-dollar infrastructure sales deals. It is dead for those that see their customers migrating to Skype, WebEx, and freemium services for personal conferencing, rather than investing in dedicated enterprise endpoints. Other than a brief period where the customers were upgrading to high definition, the average selling price of conference room video codecs has been declining for more than 15 years, and the rate of price decline is accelerating. Vendors and channel partners alike need strong unit volume growth just to maintain flat top-line revenues.

The Search for a Unifying Theory
In physics, a unified field theory is a type of field theory that describes all the fundamental forces and elementary particles of nature and is consistent with both classical Newtonian mechanics and quantum mechanics at the same time. The term was coined by Einstein, who attempted to unify the general theory of relativity with electromagnetism. There is no accepted unified field theory, and thus it remains an open line of research. The "theory of everything" and Grand Unified Theory are closely related to unified field theory.

The parallels with UC or universal communications are obvious, although Einstein was not involved in enterprise communications. Our laws of enterprise nature today involve audio, video, and text communications rather than gravity, light waves, and particle diffraction. There is no currently universally accepted solution, but the UC industry is still wrestling with notions of time and space, user experience, and productivity. And of course, now we have the Internet of Things as well.

Black Holes
Black holes, as predicted by the general theory of relativity, are regions of space where the gravitational effect is so strong that not even light can escape. Black holes can be used to explain some of the radiation emitted by certain types of astronomical objects.

In enterprise communications, black holes represent the economic challenges of marketing and sales activities for certain types of products and services that have become 1) so low cost that channel partner margin dollars are negligible or 2) so easy to install and use that reseller installation, configuration, and training services are hardly necessary.

Summary Thoughts
Indeed, quantum mechanics and the general theory of UC have much in common, although one field is more than a century old while the other is less than two decades. Might we expect to see a Nobel Prize in Unified Communications sometime soon?