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Is the UC Industry the Next Novell?

Industry long-timers will remember Novell an important part of the IT agenda in the '80s and '90s. With its proprietary network cards, it created a niche in networking long before enterprises valued TCP/IP and the Internet. And, with its NetWare network operating system, it soon became a mainstay of the corporate LAN.

Novell was a relative giant among a handful of third-party vendors in defining the-then nascent print and file server market. Organizations sought solutions for networking Microsoft DOS and Windows desktops. Near its peak, Novell licensed UNIX and bought and bundled WordPerfect and Quattro Pro to combat Microsoft.

But with Windows 95, Microsoft included networking as a core feature, and then improved its file and print server capabilities further with NT Server. During this period, channel partners began defecting, trading their Certified Novell Engineer status for Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert certification instead. Novell eventually turned to open source with the 2004 acquisition of SUSE Linux, before its 2010 decision to merge with Attachmate.

In battling against Novell for the enterprise LAN, Microsoft leveraged its operating systems to create a tightly integrated experience for end users and administrators. This is not unlike the strategy it is taking now with Office 365 and Skype for Business. At the recent Ignite conference, Microsoft demonstrated a seamless experience across most of its broad portfolio.

Microsoft is selling a powerful vision. Yes, selling. Enterprises outright rejected Vista and mostly rejected Windows 8. Microsoft is aligning its resources to create a compelling offer that will secure its IT dominance for years to come. Windows 10, due for general availability in October, will address many enterprise pain points. Unlike Windows 8, Microsoft is working to balance familiarity against new functionality to minimize disruption and adoption barriers. New features coming in Windows 10 include a speech interface with the Cortana digital assistant and ability to adapt to different modes in shape-shifting devices like the Surface computers.

It's not just about faster, better, cheaper. Microsoft is promising that its next generation of solutions will increase productivity.

In terms of UC, this includes:

Microsoft will support all of these features and experiences across multiple device types.

The Microsoft channel is capable and ready. With Office 365, Microsoft is now poised to support premises, cloud, and hybrid deployments. Most enterprise organizations already have at least base licensing for Skype for Business, and an impressive ecosystem of partners are ready with optimized devices and applications. Lync, now Skype for Business, already has momentum.

If Microsoft delivers on this new set of upgrades, including Skype for Business, 2015 may prove a "Novell moment" for the UC industry. However, any makeover of this magnitude comes with serious risk, and Microsoft faces challenges in three broad categories. Failure in any of these areas could keep enterprise UC competition alive and well.

Three Risk Factors
The first is the risk of execution, comprising two major aspects: building it right and building the right thing. Can Microsoft actually build so many new solutions at once when it never before has done so? Windows 10 alone will come in seven different flavors -- that's a lot of processors and form factors to consider. Microsoft is promising big changes to Windows Server and most of the back-office applications, a major update to Office (Office 2016) and associated changes to Office 365 plus entirely new applications and devices -- not to mention that whole carrier business. That's a lot to take on at the same time.

Assuming Microsoft delivers all of this exactly as intended, it still faces design risk. Was it envisioned correctly? Think of Steve Ballmer, then CEO, laughing at the iPhone when Apple introduced it in 2007. Anticipating market needs and desires years in advance is never easy. No doubt, many competitors are hoping for a fumble.

The second risk category is full-suite adoption. Most competitive UC solutions offer a greater degree of independence across applications and infrastructure than Microsoft envisions. Skype for Business comes with friends such as Active Directory, Exchange/Outlook, Office, OneDrive, Windows, and SharePoint. A compelling part of the Microsoft vision is tight integration, but that requires commitment across the portfolio. Even organizations that already use these solutions may favor independence over integration. It doesn't have to be a choice: Many UC alternatives integrate with Microsoft applications without requiring them. Technically, this is true of Microsoft as well, but at the cost of key features. For example, Lync's conversation history is stored in Exchange.

The third risk area is future innovation. With such a broad portfolio, will Microsoft be able to keep up with point solutions -- or will it face challenges from "best of breed" applications? The broader and more integrated a vendor's portfolio, the slower the innovation. Many of the new capabilities demonstrated at Ignite were new only to Microsoft. Features such as PSTN services, group messaging, low-cost huddle room video hardware, ink-back and touch-back video screens, and multiuser document collaboration are old news for many.

The flip side of using technology for competitive gain is being held back by technology that isn't competitive. UC competitors that can innovate quickly could have an edge over Microsoft.

IT is moving quickly, and that leads to another risk for Microsoft as well as other UC vendors: New ways to communicate could threaten the current UC model. A totally new approach may come along that replaces or refreshes enterprise communications. This type of disruption is impossible to predict. However, we are seeing traction with new messaging-first applications such as Slack. Several UC vendors are moving in this area including Cisco, Unify, and Interactive Intelligence.

It will be a few years until we know whether we'll see Microsoft's 2015 as a "Novell moment" in the UC industry. Microsoft will be launching most of these new solutions this year, but there's typically a lag time for enterprise deployments. Many organizations cautiously observe or even wait for service pack releases. UC patterns often take years to become evident.

Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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