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Why Voice Collaboration Is Suddenly Sexy

Slack recently announced beta versions of voice and video chat, meaning that this celebrated team chat platform is starting to pull together a bundle of services similar to those from unified communications players.

As you know, UC is about uniting multiple modes of communication and making them more powerful together. From a UC perspective, team messaging looks like a natural add-on to real-time communications products such as phone, video, and Web conferencing. An earlier generation of instant messaging also found a home in UC suites, but today's team messaging is less ephemeral, keeping a persistent, searchable record of messages and attachments that makes it suitable for serious collaboration. Team messaging is quickly eclipsing other concepts of social collaboration.

On the Merits of Messaging
What is interesting is that Slack proved the value of team messaging on its own merits, independent of voice and video, becoming one of the most successful startups of the past few years in the process. With enviable buzz in the press and a healthy war chest, it is now choosing to invest time and money in UC. In the long run, that puts Slack on a collision course with the likes of Cisco and Unify, which have made team messaging part of their respective UC suites, as well as RingCentral, the cloud phone service provider that bought my team messaging startup, Glip, last summer (read related No Jitter post, ""RingCentral Gobbles Up Glip").

Like texting from mobile phones, team messaging can be a near-real-time method of communication when collaborators are available to respond. If not, messages are stored for later review. Also, while sending one-on-one direct messages is an option, the emphasis on messaging to teams of coworkers promotes collaboration.

However, no one mode of communication is perfect for every occasion. Again, think of texting versus calling. Texting is great for communicating a quick thought, or asking a question for which you expect a quick answer.

You: "On my way to the restaurant now. Where R U?"

Your friend: "At the bar."

Rendezvous achieved.

On the other hand, if you haven't yet decided between steak and seafood, or whether to meet downtown or on the edge of town, you and your friend may need to get on the phone and talk things through. Similarly, asking for a quick project update might be handled effectively via team messaging -- or not. If you are the person stuck with explaining to the boss why the team is going to miss a deadline, you might want to answer with a call even if the query arrived as text. Collaboration tech enthusiasts often talk about productivity and efficiency, but psychology and empathy are just as important -- understanding how recipients might perceive different modes of communication and when each is appropriate.

Thus comes Slack's interest in establishing voice and video as alternate channels for enterprise communication and collaboration. The idea is that when text chat isn't getting the job done, you will be able to call or video call one or more collaborators with a couple of clicks.

A Click Away
How it goes about integrating enterprise voice will be particularly interesting. I will be watching to see if it plans to create a complete enterprise phone system in the cloud or thinks it can get away with treating voice and video as supplemental features. That will be the difference between being able to call anyone in the enterprise and only being able to call other Slack users who are signed into the app at the moment.

While desktop and mobile video are relatively young technologies, enterprise voice comes from a longer tradition -- also known as the company telephone system. It's true that once you reimagine voice as an Internet service, it becomes possible to "call" username to username rather than phone number to phone number, but why force that choice? Given that we have these purpose-built voice communication devices called phones, why not take advantage of them?

That is the case for pairing a business phone system in the cloud with a suite of collaboration services that includes team messaging, video chat, and screen sharing. The new modes of collaboration are powerful, but nothing beats the reach of the phone -- particularly in an age when we all carry one with us. You may not think of phone service as being sexy, but haven't smartphones made it sexier? We can make all phones more exciting by treating them all as part of a programmable cloud service offering voice side by side with other apps.

The rise of team messaging parallels how we use our phones, which has changed a lot in the last few decades. Where we used to call locations, now we call people. When I was a kid, the first thing I'd ask when someone picked up the phone was, "Is Joe there?" These days, if I want to call Joe, I call his mobile -- a phone number that represents the person, not the location. Add UC, and now I can reach him at his desk, on his mobile, or on his computer through the same number. If what I really want is to reach a business function, like my company's help desk, a single number can ring out to a queue of employees and get answered by the first available person -- again, whether that staffer be at his or her desk phone, mobile, or computer.

With team messaging and UC working in parallel, you place a call from a team collaboration context, and it can ring as a pop-up on the recipient's PC, on a desk phone, or on a smartphone. In the same way, you can start a phone conference or video chat with a whole team, without the need to email out invitations. We think it's important that a call initiated with a click on a collaborator's profile picture comes through as a call from your real business phone number, not some random bridge number, and can reach any phone number in the enterprise.

Number Obscurity
Arguably, what we want to unify in unified communications is really identity, as much as communications. Instead of looking up someone's number and dialing, click on his or her profile picture to call. Instead of emailing out conference call or Web conference coordinates, invite your team in the context of your collaboration and let team members click to join.

As we get more used to clicking on a profile photo or an icon on our phones to call someone, the phone number is becoming an obscure technical detail like the IP address behind a website. I don't know about you, but I don't have many phone numbers memorized anymore -- my phone remembers them so I don't have to. Still, the phone number is an important bridge between generations of technology -- it means your call can ring anywhere, not just on a computer.

That makes the distinction between team collaboration that includes "voice" and one that includes an enterprise phone system a big one because it means you can reach more people, more consistently.

If I am right, one of the most interesting user experience challenges for RingCentral, Cisco, Unify, Slack, and startup competitors whose names I don't yet know will be blending the newest concepts in collaboration with a legacy technology that stretches all the way back to Alexander Graham Bell.