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What Hath Google Wrought?

Traditional UC/UCC players need to think about their role in the future, and there’s really only one role that will be available--the supporting role.

When Google launched its new social-network trial, Google+, it did more than square off against Facebook. It created an explicit model for social-based communication, and that model poses a major threat to the way communication services are created and used. It also creates a model of "unified communication and collaboration" that's different from the earlier models not in how communication is done or how it's organized, but rather how it's conceptualized. In a world where buyers are already looking to the web for their next UC/UCC vision, that could be a major game-changer.

Google+ was built from scratch with the idea that communication grows out of relationships. That means that a portal that organizes potential contacts by how every user perceives their relationships is therefore the logical place from which to jump into a call. Google+ "circles" are groupings of contacts into categories that let users partition their view. Think Facebook with filters that let you look at activity by grouping rather than seeing a big flood of pet videos and political rants. From a view of a circle, a Google+ user can then initiate a "Hangout", meaning that they can create a kind of video meeting, or they can "chat". If you have voice-enabled your Google Chat, it appears that you can call as well.

Even at a basic level, this could be a pretty radical change in mediating communications. Circles could be defined as groupings of workers as easily as categories of acquaintances. That alone would allow Google+ to act as a kind of home base for projects. Project comments posted to a project circle could become the basis for calling/chatting or hanging out in a video sense. And obviously enabling video in this context could potentially facilitate group meetings using something like telepresence. And as if features alone weren't interesting enough, the fact that Google could create collaboration as a subset of the broad social community means that it's more likely that people you need to communicate with would be on the service and available to you using the full range of Google+ features.

Since Google+ is only in a limited-trial stage as I write this, it may seem that I’m presuming success for a still-unfinished concept. Yes, to a degree, but I'm also presuming that Facebook will counterpunch, and they’ve already started to do that with a relationship with Skype. So now we have the established social giant fighting the up-and-coming (estimates are that Google+ has passed the 20 million mark in users already) for supremacy as the home page of social communications. How is that not going to create a major market change?

Which means that traditional UC/UCC players need to think about their role in the future, and there’s really only one role that will be available--the supporting role. Remember, company communication has always leveraged public communications services. If "public communications services" means social-network-integrated communications, the UC/UCC players need to start thinking about how they'll integrate with social networks too. They have three possible paths.

The first strategy, likely to be the most palatable to the vendors involved, would be to create their own social framework for calling and collaboration, modeling it after a social network. Projects have "UCbook" pages, where comments are posted and from which communications can be initiated. While the vendors would have to be careful not to tread on patents by the social network giants, they could at least hope to get some control over their destiny. And for the moment at least, only LinkedIn really targets business users. That means there may be time to develop a social-based UC strategy before somebody really big gets into the game.

The problem here, of course is timing. If Google or Facebook has given the matter of business communications any thought at all (and who believes Google has not?) then they could launch a social-based UC service of their own in a day. To avoid having to come from far behind, then, UC vendors would a second approach--to ally with the least threatening social player, which is LinkedIn. Having just done an IPO, and with the strongest business support of any social player, LinkedIn might be a natural candidate. LinkedIn "Groups" map nicely to the enterprise notion of projects. But to do this, companies would need to be assured their project data would be safe, which means LinkedIn would have to address group security.

But there’s a risk to this approach, beyond that of security of LinkedIn Groups. The social-networking universe will be defined by Facebook, Google+, or the two in combination. They're the PSTN of the future if social communications wins, and you have to integrate with the PSTN in any UC/UCC system. Thus, the third option of accepting a secondary role to social networking in project hosting, and focusing on integration with the social community emerges. Both Facebook and Google have developer programs, and the best place to start would be to develop an integration strategy with both networks based on the developer program capabilities.

A few UC vendors have told me they're exploring all three of these options, and some may decide to take all three paths at the same time. In effect, they'd be creating a kind of SOA-based UC/UCC, with components that could come from social networks or the UC vendors, and with integration and inter-calling options derived both from their own products and from the social-network giants. As unpalatable as this may be, I think it's the only survivable option for UC.