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What's the "Ideal" UC?
I blogged earlier this year about how much businesses liked the idea of a future UC based on technology like Skype or Google Voice, and the piece got a lot of response. Some of my own questions related to just what a business might want from such a marriage of technologies, and so I went back and asked businesses what they would like to see. I had 88 responses, and from them I've gleaned a model that I think fairly represents what businesses would like to see.
One thing that came out of the interview process was that while call and message handling isn't glamorous like video or white-board, users rate it as being more important to them. In putting together an Ideal UC, they started with the features that related to managing calls, messages, and events, and then moved to other "rich media" stuff. They expect the greatest integration here, both functionally and at the GUI level. As I reported in an earlier blog, the users are increasingly thinking of UC as an extension of basic VoIP, meaning Skype or Google Voice. It's where and how the two get extended that’s interesting.
According to users, the heart of Ideal UC is a flexible "connection table", something like the list of forwarding numbers that's available in Google Voice. Each of the entries in this connection can represent a wireline phone number, a wireless number, a VoIP username or ID, a VoIP softphone or client instance, a video client, etc. Where a number is identified, the entry can also specify the medium through which the call will be attempted. The idea is that this table represents things that you can forward or transfer a call to. Associated with each entry is a set of rules that govern when the entry is activated. We can call this the Connection Manager.
The second element in the Ideal UC is a list of Alert Sources. These are things that can ring for attention, in a real phone sense, or as an email notification or an IM, but they also include things like calendar notifications/reminders. When something on the "Alert List" signals, the signal is processed against the rules in the connection table, and the alert is handled based on which rule or rules match.
When a user of the Ideal UC gets a call on any of the numbers in the Connection Manager, it processes the rules and potentially rings down on any number of the connections represented; here again it's rather like Google Voice. If a user picks up on something, the system suspends alerting on other channels. If the user wants to switch a call to somewhere else--meaning they want to connect the incoming call to any outbound channel that's in their Connection Manager list--they use a signal or prompt to activate a transfer. Google Voice simply cycles through its list of connections to effect a transfer, but users want more granular functionality—the ability, for example, to dial "*1" for their first connection option, and so forth.
Users want the Ideal UC to function as a call director in an attended environment, so a specific Ideal UC user might get their "calls" largely from another system acting as an attendant, and for this forwarding they'd expect to use a “local” VoIP connection, one that’s a true peer-to-peer connection. A user might have a separate line that would ring around the attendant, and that would be just another entry for the Connection Manager.
VoIP services like Skype and Google Talk are seen as both connection options for call handling and as alert sources, and this would mean either integrating Google Talk and Skype client logic into the Ideal UC via an API, or that Google or Microsoft actually produces the Ideal UC. Here we can see why users tend to say that Skype is their ideal framework for UC; those users believe that since Skype is currently the most flexible VoIP service, it's essential to include it, and they doubt that Microsoft will support the APIs needed to integrate with non-Microsoft products.
Integrating advanced services is seen as being a simpler process than many UC/UCC vendors are assuming. Users see these advanced capabilities either evolving out of a traditional call ("turn on the video or whiteboard") or they saw an enhanced call being made directly with the Skype or Google service if all parties knew from the start that these capabilities were needed. This suggests that complex integration of things like WebEx would not be needed, and I couldn't get good data on whether it was seen as valuable.
In terms of linking the Ideal UC with social networks, users believed that social-network outcalling was simply an activation of one of the VoIP clients available to the Ideal UC, and that an incoming "social network call" is an alert that is processed by rules, just like any other call. Even changes in social-network status could become an "alert" source.
For "non-communications" alerts, including calendar or presence changes for both the user and potentially for other workers, the Ideal UC would let the alert change a status that rules could then test, generate a canned message or email, or both. An example is that if a worker’s desktop presence shows that worker isn't at the desk, a calendar meeting alert could generate an IM reminder. Since this sort of thing can be done with many calendars directly, it's clear the users are making the Ideal UC into a kind of personal clearinghouse of alerts, calls, and actions. That seems to be where they see the greatest value.
So who's there? The users say that neither Skype nor Google Voice/Talk has exactly what they want. Google is closer to the connection manager and Skype offers them better and broader out-call integration with the Ideal UC. Either company could field the solution if they want, and so could every UC vendor. The race may be on, because without this sort of thing UC may face the challenge of being fragmented into disconnected tools, not "unified" at all.