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UC/UCC and Swiss Army Knives

It’s time to get realistic about UC/UCC, which is on track to be subducted into multiple windows and social behaviors.

It's time to get realistic about UC/UCC. Ever since someone discovered that workers were communicating through means other than POTS, we've been talking about unified platforms that harmonize all our diverse communications tools into one glorious whole. A whole that, not coincidentally, was "Now available!" from some vendor or another and "Poised for explosive growth!" Humbug. How long do we wait for this future? It's time to move on.

What killed that glorious-whole model of UC? We did. Because we're so adept at switching among multiple apps, we can effortlessly juggle multiple email, voice, video, chat/IM, and social options. There's no "unified" problem to solve. For the big PBX vendors who believed that "unified" communications would save their voice market opportunity, this is bad news, but it's still reality. All UC/UCC strategies will fail because we're already unified enough for all practical purposes.

We can learn a lesson from a more pedestrian tool than a smartphone or tablet--the Swiss Army knife. They propose value through integration alone, but there are so many different Leatherman and Victorinox and other brands, that differentiation is tough. How many tools can you cram in? So what would a tool provider do? They'd realize that you can't carve your turkey with one, or fix your eyeglasses or cut canvas with a universal gadget. If you need to do one of those specialty things, you need the specialty tool. That's what the PBX and voice incumbents should be looking at here. If you want to make your "UC/UCC suite" valuable, then you have to make it really good at something that's important. If you can do that, then people will pay more and want you more at the same time. In short, it's about features and their business value.

Some of the old-line voice executives I talk with accept the idea that feature differentiation on aspects of their UC/UCC solution is the right way to go, but they despair at competition from the cloud. In their view, they could spend a lot of R&D money on creating a couple of premises-hosted killer communications and collaboration features, only to find them eaten by ad-sponsored cloud offerings. Well, there's another parallel here that's as instructive as Swiss Army knives.

I started using Microsoft Office decades ago and faithfully updated the product, providing me with the latest stuff and Microsoft with a new revenue stream. Then out came various open-source office tools. Then came Google Docs, a cloud-hosted solution. So what do I use now? Microsoft Office and Office 365. Why? Because none of the free or cheaper stuff has all the features I need. I have spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations that (even at my pathetic level of skills) are apparently too complicated for these competitive tools to even open correctly. How many spreadsheets and presentations would I have to redo before I'd eat up the cost of Office? Until somebody can match Office features, Microsoft owns my desktop productivity business. That would work for UC/UCC too, if we can find the right hook.

And we can. We're entering a mobile age, a time when workers carry an appliance with them everywhere they go, and expect to be able to draw on contextual information to support not their "job" in an abstract sense, but what they're doing right then, right there--contextual empowerment. That is a completely new problem, one that could justify a completely new model of communications and collaboration in itself. Add to that the fact that all these workers are now attuned to social network practices more so than to voice calling and you have a demand-side revolution.

Right now, with this revolution just climbing out to man the barricades, even old-line voice vendors have a chance to come up with that perfect toolkit, the collection of features that will not only set expectations but form worker behavior patterns, just as Excel and PowerPoint shaped my work, and yours. If they do that now, while the market is malleable, they can own a franchise as durable as Office's has been - own it even against the competition of the cloud and giants like Google.

The problem is that this wonderful opportunity is transient. Suppose Google Docs and OpenOffice had been available when I did my first spreadsheet or presentation? You can work with those tools, but you can't quite work the same way. When you have no preconceived way you expect to work, you'd take the cheapest and easiest path. If the voice giants of yesterday wait long enough, we'll have a bunch of low-cost, social-based tools that will handle contextual UC/UCC well enough. Those tools will get socialized, learned, and become entrenched. Then there will be no place, literally, to go for the UC/UCC traditionalists.

UC/UCC is on track to be subducted into multiple windows and social behaviors. The classic vision has led incumbents to fritter away real feature differentiation opportunity to focus on doing something nobody needs--integrate into a Swiss Army knife that devices have long-since created. It's time to look instead for specialized tool opportunities compelling enough to bet on...not just to change the game but to save it.