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The Rise of the Headless UC Client

The UC market is undergoing a metamorphosis. For most of the last decade or so, most UC discussions that I've had with both enterprise IT leaders and vendors have centered around the UC client -- that piece of software running on mobile or desktop devices that provided presence, click-to-chat/call/conference, and so on. RFPs and RFIs focused on determining a go-forward strategy, often picking a 'winner' from among a variety of vendors including Avaya, Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, Mitel, NEC, ShoreTel, Unify and more.

But along the way to UC nirvana, a funny thing has happened: Web-based applications have taken over the world. New capabilities within Web browsers have opened up the possibility of breaking the bonds to the UC client, and instead extending UC functionality into the business apps that many workers rely on for their daily tasks.

These capabilities are coming fast and furious, and in a variety of ways including through vendor partnerships, APIs, and the capabilities of WebRTC. Just last week Microsoft and Salesforce announced plans to integrate the Microsoft set of UC&C tools into Salesforce's next-generation "lightning" user interface, presumably enabling those working in SFDC to see presence of co-workers (and possibly customers), and click-to-chat/call/conference without ever switching over to the Skype for Business client, a feature already available in several cloud-based IP telephony providers like 8x8, RingCentral, and ShoreTel.

Cisco's acquisition of Tropo earlier this summer provides the potential for customers to leverage its APIs to hook Cisco UC&C into their own custom corporate applications, delivering similar features. The AvayaLive Collaboratory enables building and testing of custom UC apps in the cloud, without requiring an on-premises test and development environment. Companies like Twilio have rapidly entered the enterprise communications landscape with a variety of cloud-based APIs for embedding UC&C functionality directly into apps. Finally, there's WebRTC, now on the cusp of true browser ubiquity, and with it the capability to add voice, video, and screen sharing capabilities directly to any Web-based app, potentially with hooks to the enterprise UC platform for call routing and management.

Interest is growing in the 'headless" UC client, where UC functions don't just exist within Jabber or Skype for Business but are available within any app. In the Nemertes 2015-16 UC&C benchmark, based on data gathered from approximately 50 end-user organizations, 34% were already extending UC capabilities directly into their corporate apps, or were planning to do so by year's end. Another 30% were actively evaluating how they could do so.

Early adopters cited a variety of use cases, largely involving CRM and ERP integration, or integration with help desk systems. Another 10% were actively building their own UC applications, leveraging cloud platforms like Twilio or other capabilities available from their UC&C providers. Examples here included the ability to dip into databases for inbound calls to sales teams to provide screen pops or custom call routing based on identifying the caller (in effect adding contact center ACD-like functionality for inbound sales calls).

Successfully embracing the headless UC approach means bringing together not only those responsible for running other enterprise applications with the UC team, but also educating teams of internal developers on what's possible and available with current UC APIs and WebRTC. It requires addressing things like performance management so that when someone tries to place a call from within their SAP window, and fails, the IT help desk will know how to tackle without creating an internal finger-pointing session between the UC team and the ERP team. Finally, it requires engaging the right external resources that can bring development and integration expertise to the table to speed deployments.

The bottom line is that your next UC client might not be a UC client at all, rather, UC functionality is likely to continue to evolve away from a separate, stand-alone client, morphing into the applications that people use to manage their tasks, companies, and customers.

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