What, There's Something Better Than Real Time?

Those of us from the analog world will hopefully see this question as a play on a classic line from the seminal "2000 Year Old Man" routine from Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. If you do, I'm sure you'll also see the irony right away in that our generation may be asking this question with Mel Brooks in mind, but it's really pointed at Millennials who almost certainly have never heard of the 2000 Year Old Man. I'm not sure if the joke is on them or us, but the question is timely, as it challenges a core attribute of communications technology that has defined its business value for generations.

The real-time nature of voice -- initially analog, then TDM, but now VoIP, both fixed line and mobile -- has long been the communications gold standard upon which carriers built their fortunes. We don't think much about it now, but telephony was so much better than what had come before it and, for quite some time, what followed as well. Outside the realm of science fiction, nothing is faster than real time, and like anything else, the perceived value of telephony is gauged against the alternatives. Not only is telephony real time, but the voice mode has higher utility than most other modes of communication, especially when nuance is required.

Since the invention of telephony, nothing has come along that beats that combination, at least until very recently. While email, born in the Internet era, brought a new dimension of efficiency to communication, it wasn't real time, and lacked the intimacy of voice. And while mobility, bubbling up from within the telephony realm, may have now displaced a lot of native PBX traffic, the transition has taken decades, not years. In the early days, nobody envisioned cellular phones as having much utility in the workplace, not just for the high cost, but the vastly inferior quality that still persists to some degree.

What Could Be Better Than Real Time?

This preamble brings me to the question posed by this article's title. When considering all this history and for how long telephony has reigned supreme, it's fair to wonder if there really could be something better. Just like the 2000 Year Old Man discovered something bigger than "Phil" (who everyone in his village worshiped "because he was big, mean, and he could break you in two with his bare hands!") enterprises are coming to the same realization about real-time communication. Voice will always remain important, but even as traditional forms of telephony continue to give way to mobile and Web-based options, something else is changing -- and if you don't connect the dots, you'll end up keeping the 2000 Year Old Man company.

As we know, voice is losing primacy to messaging, and for anyone with even a few strands of legacy DNA left in their thinking, the logic is confounding. How can something that's largely free -- and for some, by extension not enterprise grade -- and only near real time, possibly be a serious workplace alternative to telephony? Not only is telephony a real-time mode, but the quality and reliability has historically been so good that we don't think twice about paying a premium for it.

The change, of course, is mainly driven by the generational shift from digital immigrants to digital natives, but there's more to it. Sure, Millennials are favoring messaging over voice, but digital immigrants are heavy users as well (especially those who have faced reality and come to realize that this is the only way to communicate with their children). Now messaging is the norm at work for all, but the story doesn't end there.

Telephony isn't losing out because real time has become less important. Rather, the process to engage in real-time communications is inefficient, and the benefit isn't worth it if getting there is too much hassle. Most ad hoc calling attempts end up in voicemail, nobody bothers listening to messages, and even if your presence status tells me you're available, I'm more likely to text you first than pick up the phone.

Users have to expend so much less time and effort to communicate via near-real-time messaging than they do by "real-time" calling. Clearly, that's a favorable trade-off based on how quickly users have adopted messaging -- and that seriously undermines the utility of real time as a driver for investing in communication technology.

But Wait, There's More

The more subtle change that Phil would have missed -- and so will you if you're still pining for the knowns of the PBX -- is the other parties with whom your employees are actually messaging. Today, they're primarily messaging each other, person to person. However, the Internet of Things is coming, and you don't have to search far here on No Jitter to see how relevant artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are becoming for enterprises as they strive to automate processes and streamline operations.

Chatbots will become a big storyline in 2017, and increasingly, messaging will be a platform for automated, person-to-machine communication. This is actually part of something even bigger -- digital transformation -- where natural language processing is going to transform the role of voice. Telephony will continue as a real-time channel, but the new value basis for voice will be in the realm of AI and ML, where Amazon's Alexa is a sign of things to come.

IT needs to pay attention to these changing currents, because yet again, the drivers of innovation will come from outside the usual suspects. Google and Facebook are particularly invested in this next wave, and when it comes, telephony will not be part of the solution. They're not thinking about real-time communication, or the need to integrate with a PBX. This new application of voice will be person to machine, but utilized in a messaging framework where real time isn't really that important. The speech-to-text world we know has long had many limitations, but today's IBM Watson-like capabilities take things to an entirely new level.

3 Implications for IT

If you're on top of all this, congratulations, and I'd like to interview you for my next No Jitter post.

I suspect, however, that most readers are struggling with all this change and disruption. My first takeaway would simply be to acknowledge where telephony fits in today's UC landscape and, accordingly, the diminished value of maintaining a standalone telephony system.

Second would be to understand this is not just a Millennials-are-coming issue. The utility of messaging is enterprise wide -- in no small part because the PBX you've been supporting for so long is becoming a drag on productivity. Related to that is the speed at which things are happening. Telephony has barely evolved for decades, and while that may be comforting, the messaging revolution has happened comparatively overnight, and too fast for enterprises to adapt properly.

Third, both messaging and voice are converging in new ways, enabled by technologies that were developed outside the communications world with which we're most familiar. The ground rules are changing, being written as they are by players for whom telephony and real time aren't the most important things. It's time to move on from Phil.