Unify's Circuit: Looking Toward a Single Pane of Glass

In one of the most widely anticipated introductions the UC market has seen in a good long while, Unify today launched the product it's been calling Project Ansible for the last year and a half but now officially goes by the name Circuit.

Circuit, nee Project Ansible, has changed a bit in the year and a half since Unify (formerly Siemens Enterprise Communications) announced the initiative. Project Ansible, when first introduced, promised to be a communications hub that presented a single pane of glass into the increasingly inconvenient mess of messaging, communications, and social tools that people use at work. Yet Circuit, as it now exists, is more of a closed enterprise social community with comparably robust real-time communications baked directly into it. This could very well be compelling to businesses seeking enterprise social software, particularly those interested in adopting it in a SaaS model and those that have not already made significant investments in IBM Connections, Jive, and other enterprise social platforms.

Read more on Unify's Circuit:

Read more on Unify's Circuit:

But I think that Circuit will become more interesting to enterprises after its next few enhancements, which should allow it to fulfill the "single pane of glass" promise that people -- or at least I -- find so interesting. So let's take a look at what Circuit offers today, and how it's expected to be enhanced in the near future.

First, some basic facts: Circuit is not UC. It doesn't replace OpenScape UC, Microsoft Lync, or Cisco Jabber. At last week's Unify conference, VP Global Solution Marketing Jan Hickisch offered this description of it: "Circuit improves teamwork by bringing together voice, video, screen share, messaging, and file sharing into a single view."

  • Circuit is an enterprise social and communications environment that currently runs separate from UC, email, and other communications software and later will be able to integrate with them.
  • Circuit is sold in a traditional SaaS model. There's no server software to buy, install, and maintain. Think Salesforce.com or, in the UC space, AvayaLive Connect.
  • Circuit is powered by mostly new, but some old, or rather existing, Unify software. For example, Conversation threads, point-to-point real-time communications, and search are all based on newly developed software. Among the familiar faces in the underlying infrastructure is OpenScape Media Server, which sets up multipoint calls and performs some other functions discussed below. And OpenScape Session Border Controller facilitates inter-company Circuit communications, and will provide communications outside a company's specific Circuit environment.
  • Circuit subscriptions cost $14.95 per user per month. As an introductory special, Unify is offering six months of free use.
  • Circuit is available for purchase now.

  • Circuit is sold in a traditional SaaS model. There's no server software to buy, install, and maintain. Think Salesforce.com or, in the UC space, AvayaLive Connect.
  • Circuit is powered by mostly new, but some old, or rather existing, Unify software. For example, Conversation threads, point-to-point real-time communications, and search are all based on newly developed software. Among the familiar faces in the underlying infrastructure is OpenScape Media Server, which sets up multipoint calls and performs some other functions discussed below. And OpenScape Session Border Controller facilitates inter-company Circuit communications, and will provide communications outside a company's specific Circuit environment.
  • Circuit subscriptions cost $14.95 per user per month. As an introductory special, Unify is offering six months of free use.
  • Circuit is available for purchase now.
  • OK, now on to what Circuit is and what it will become.

    portable

    What Circuit does. Photo of a slide shown analysts at last week’s Unify conference.

    Client software
    Now: For PCs and Macs, Circuit runs as a browser-based WebRTC client in Chrome. Screen sharing requires a plugin. For mobiles, Circuit comes in the form of a native iOS app for iPhones and iPods.

    Later: Unify plans additional browser support, including a native WebRTC client for Firefox and a plugin for Internet Explorer. For mobiles, Unify is working on a native app for Android. It has no current plans for a native BlackBerry app, though the Android app may be able to run on BlackBerrys, as many others do, and Unify has said it's considering an IE and BlackBerry client.

    My thoughts: Circuit is a brilliant use of WebRTC. It's great to see a leading UC solutions developer embracing it in this way, and I think this is a sign of things to come as other UC vendors roll out browser-based clients for their communications solutions.

    That said, having only a browser-based interface means that when the client is not connected to the Internet the user has no access to Circuit content -- at least that's what happened with my demo account. So that meant no checking of conversation threads on airplanes or other places where I was unconnected.

    portable

    The Circuit user interface... pre-launch, clearly, since it’s still called Ansible. On the left, a list of Conversations. On the right, the Conversation you’re currently viewing. Top, middle: Point-to-point video call in progress. User can increase or decrease size of video windows.

    Search
    Now: Users can search content and contacts within Circuit.

    Later: Users will be able to search content and contacts outside of Circuit. This will require connectors and integration with third-party software (more on that below).

    Voice and video calling
    Now: Current support is for voice and video calling only within the Circuit environment. So for now users can just make Circuit-to-Circuit calls, much like the Lync-to-Lync restriction within Lync Online as it's typically deployed.

    portable

    Video conference layout with 15+ participants. Three most active speakers appear in larger windows at top of screen.

    Later: Ability to dial out to the PSTN via PBX integration and/or support for carriers' SIP trunking services (more on that shortly).

    Additional info: Calls between two Circuit users are set up peer-to-peer while multipoint calls leverage OpenScape Media Server in the Circuit cloud. Technically, there's no maximum number of participants who can be in a multipoint call. Circuit interface displays at most 15 participants in video calls, with the top one to three of them appearing larger than the others.

    Telephony integration
    Now: Circuit does not currently integrate with any PBX system, UC server, or telephony service. With the exception of PSTN dial-in mentioned above, users can set up voice calls only with other Circuit users.

    Later: Unify will introduce a "universal telephony connector" that connects Circuit to any other voice platform via SIP and an "advanced telephony connector" that not only integrates Circuit with SIP-based voice systems, but also supports telephony presence (an end user's presence icon in Circuit shows him as busy when he's using his desk phone) and various other call features.

    Additional info: Both telephony connectors are powered by... yep, you guessed it: OpenScape Media Server in the Circuit cloud. Circuit is getting a lot of mileage out of that thing!

    My thoughts: The advanced telephony connector will only work with Unify voice systems. So telephony presence and other advanced voice services will only work when Circuit is deployed alongside OpenScape. This is great for OpenScape customers, but it will limit the degree to which companies with Avaya, Cisco, and other telephony systems are able to integrate Circuit into their overall communications and collaboration environment.

    Audio conferencing
    Now: Audio conference participants can dial in to a Circuit meeting from the PSTN. This is powered by conference bridge software in the OpenScape Media Server hosted in the Circuit cloud. Dial-in numbers for the US, UK, and Germany are currently available.

    Later: Audio conferencing dial-in numbers for other countries.

    Guest access
    Now: None, except for aforementioned PSTN dial-in for audio-only participants.

    Later: Ability to add non-Circuit users to a Circuit Conversation. A Circuit user will be able to send out a URL to a specific Conversation thread. Clicking on it, the guest will be able to see the thread, participate in WebRTC-driven voice and video calls, share screens, view/upload/download files, and otherwise act as a Circuit user. When the call is over, the guest loses access to Circuit.

    Cross-tenant communications
    Now: Users at one business subscribing to Circuit can start Conversations, view presence, launch voice and video sessions, and otherwise interact with users at another business subscribing to Circuit. Administrators at either company can block this feature.

    Later: Individual Circuit users will be able to block cross-tenant communications sessions.

    Additional info: Cross-tenant communications was described to me as a "hidden feature" in the current version of Circuit. Users can enter the Circuit ID of users at other companies, but the Circuit UI doesn't explicitly indicate that this is possible. In later versions of Circuit, this feature will become more obvious.

    Next page: Click to the next page to find out how Circuit handles video and IM integration, and more

    Video integration
    Now: For now, Circuit does not integrate with third-party video conferencing solutions, whether room-based systems from Polycom, cloud-based services like Fuze, or video-capable UC apps like Lync.

    Later: Support for third-party video conferencing systems isn't on the Circuit roadmap. At least not that I've heard.

    IM integration
    Now: Circuit has no inherent IM capabilities, nor will it have them later. This is in keeping with Unify's "this ain't UC" stance on Circuit. There is no integration with third-party IM systems.

    Later: Unify does not have support for third-party IM software on the Circuit roadmap. At least not that I've heard.

    My thoughts: The lack of a buddy list is the first thing that threw me off when using Circuit. I think this is partly because I was still thinking of it as a UC app with some social stuff thrown in and partly because I wanted to see who else was online so I could fire up a video call with them. But Unify is shooting for something different with Circuit. It's not trying to recreate a UC experience, but rather to change how people -- at least people whose jobs require a significant amount of time in front of a PC or mobile display -- work. It's a gutsy move for a company that's otherwise so communications-oriented... and one that will put Unify on a collision course with a whole new set of competitors including IBM, Jive, Microsoft, Glip, and Slack.

    Presence
    Now: Circuit users can view each other's presence and manually set their own presence state. Presence state changes when a user is in a voice or video call on Circuit.

    Later: The upcoming advanced telephony connector will send telephony presence info to Circuit.

    Meeting recording
    Now: Circuit does not have any recording capabilities yet.

    Later: Circuit users will be able to record live meetings, including their audio, video, and screen sharing components. Audio will be automatically transcribed, so searches for keywords will turn up hits in the transcriptions.

    Integration with other apps
    Now: None

    Later: Unify has immediate plans to deliver an Outlook Contacts connector and not-immediate-but-not-far-off plans for a connector for Outlook Calendar. There will be few (no?) one-off integrations with other apps. Instead, Unify wants to deliver a middleware layer that exposes Circuit APIs and SDKs to developers. That -- and presumably an ecosystem of developers -- should lead to integrations with other apps like Salesforce.com, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yammer, Jive, and so forth.

    My thoughts: Integrating with third-party apps will be absolutely critical to Circuit's success, in my honest opinion. Certainly it will make Unify's "single pane of glass" promise more of a reality. Circuit is certainly interesting as it is. But until it lets users connect to the wider world of business apps it's yet another silo. I don't know about you, but I neither need nor want yet another repository of messages that I need to check along with all the other message repositories I have to manage. But an app that helps bring them all together? That's what really captured by imagination at the Project Ansible launch last year. And that's what I'm really looking forward to Circuit becoming.

    Document collaboration
    Now: Circuit has basic screen sharing -- no document markup, co-editing, or other more advanced features.

    portable

    Strangest. German. Ever. But this is a decent shot of what a Circuit video conference + screen sharing session looks like.

    Later: Hmmm... I'm not sure, really. I don't remember Unify saying if it was planning to make Circuit's document collaboration capabilities more robust.

    Document storage
    Now: Documents get stored on Circuit servers in the cloud. Unify offers a maximum of 50 gigabytes of storage per user with the paid service and 5GB per user for the free trial.

    Later: Unify will add more per-user storage for an additional fee, and offer support for external storage repositories, either in a corporate network or via services such as Box.

    portable

    What upcoming Box integration will look like.

    Localization
    Now: English, German

    Later: Other languages

    Hosting model
    Now: The Unify-managed Circuit software is installed in IBM data centers in Illinois, Texas, and Amsterdam.

    Later: Large service providers will be able to host the software in their own networks and offer it as their own service.

    Additional info: Heard at last week's Unify conference: Circuit is in data centers on two continents "so customers can either have their data hosted in the US and let the NSA spy on them, or they can have their data hosted in Europe and let the NSA spy on them." Classic.

    My thoughts: I'm not sure if Unify has really committed to this. Some Unify folks have said there will be partner-hosted Circuit services and I've heard others say that there won't be. Both approaches have their pros and cons. On the one hand, letting Verizon or other providers offer their own Circuit services would give the partners more incentive to promote and sell the service compared to them just reselling the Unify-hosted service. On the other hand, Unify will run into the same problems that Cisco, Microsoft, and others have with different providers offering services based on different versions of the underlying software. So there will potentially be less uniformity across their various Circuit-based services.

    Product support
    Now: Premium support for both free trial and paid service

    Later: Premium support for paid service only

    Additional info: Premium support for Circuit is an in-app feature. Users click on a button to open a message session with a Unify support rep, as well as upload log files to the Conversation thread. Escalate that to a two-way video conference within Circuit, with screen sharing to help resolve the issue. This is very reminiscent of Amazon Mayday.

    Sales model
    Now: Unify has a small direct sales force dedicated to Circuit. Customers can sign-up for trials or paid subscriptions via a self-service Web portal.

    Later: Unify will have a formal Circuit channel program in place by January 2015. Based on what I heard at the Unify conference last week, a number of resellers have already been looped in and are getting their heads around how Circuit will or won't complement their existing OpenScape business.

    My thanks to Jan, who I mentioned earlier, as well as Frank Fender, UC consultant and software architect, and especially Paul Maddison, product owner-Circuit, whose 30-minute one-on-one session with me went on for two hours ... not including a 3.5-mile hike earlier that day, during which he was mercilessly quizzed on Circuit up one side of Camelback Mountain and down the other.

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