The organizational impact of unified communications has interested me for a few years, ever since I heard a couple network engineers at Interop joking about how useless and difficult traditional telecom engineers are. I’ve since heard those sentiments echoed, perhaps a little more politely, many times over the years. If network pros and telecom pros feel this way about each other, who are they going to work together when voice converges on IP networks?
At VoiceCon this week I attended a coffee talk roundtable discussion on the organizational impacts of unified communications to hear about what progress (or lack thereof) unified communications managers have made. Here are the two major problems I heard them discuss.
1. UC managers are still struggling with integrating their organizations. It’s not just about integrating telecom engineers into an IP networking team. One manager noted that video poses a new problem. The teams that support and maintain legacy videoconferencing technology in many companies report into the facilities management organization. That’s bound to present cultural problems during integration. Also, other organizations are starting to realize that voice is becoming “just another applications” on the network, and voice and UC is starting to integrate with critical business applications. This means that UC organizations need to start collaborating with the admins of those enterprise applications. One UC manager noted that unified messaging, with voicemail feeding into email inboxes, forces the telecom team to talk to the “Exchange guys.” Sounds awful!
2. Nimbleness is another major organizational challenge for UC managers. With enterprises bringing personal smartphones to work and using consumer services like Twitter and Google Voice, UC managers are struggling to provide comparable enterprise-grade communications and collaboration tools quickly enough. Users adopt the consumer tools they believe will help them do their job better as soon as they identify them. Unlike UC managers, end users don’t have to get budget for these consumer tools, go through an RFP process, nor integrate the tools into the UC environment. They just download the thing or sign up for it and start using it.
It probably won’t surprise you that no one came up with a panacea solution to these challenges during the session. It was more of an opportunity for UC managers to compare their organizational challenges with those with their peers. Hopefully the discussion will help them figure out the solutions on their own after they head home at the end of this week.
This is VoiceCon’s last year as VoiceCon. On this — the 20th anniversary of the VoiceCon conference — Fred Knight, GM/co-chair of VoiceCon, and the publisher of NoJitter.com, announced this morning that VoiceCon will henceforth be called Enterprise Connect.
Though VoiceCon’s name change won’t improve the way you do business or help you do your job better, it is indicative of a geniune shift in how we communicate both professionally and personally.
Communications has become an omnipresent force — the likes of which we haven’t seen…since the Internet. We no longer merely consider the multi-modal ways to reach out to one another, we’re locking available technologies into the natural order of our lives and are proactively seeking out new, innovative communications tools to meet both professional and personal obligations. Even my nine-year old asks me, “Isn’t there an app for that?”
As Fred pointed out, communications are transforming business and he and his team are confident they’ve picked the right name and one that will last. I think they’re right.
At VoiceCon this morning I had breakfast with Siemens and VMware in advance of their announcement of a new partnership for the virtualization of real-time communications applications.
The Siemens-VMware strategic partnership will aim for the virtualization all of Siemens’ UC technologies: OpenScape Voice, Unified Communications and Contact Center.
Mitel has had a slight lead in this area so far. It has had a tight partnership with VMware for about two years and last month it announced that a virtualized version of its call control control applications (Virtual Mitel Call Director) is in production with several companies.
Adrian Brookes (Siemens Vice president in the office of the CTO), told the breakfast table this morning that while competitors have focused on virtualizing specific applications, Siemens is focused on virtualizing its entire real-time communications portfolio. He also said Siemens will be hardware agnostic. It will not tell customers which vendors’ servers to use (a slight knock at Cisco and its Unified Computing System server platform).
He also said Siemens virtualization efforts are based completely on open standards, which will enable customers to choose any hypervisor (once those hypervisor vendors are ready to support real-time communications). As Brian Riggs, research director at Current Analysis, noted, Citrix/Xen is on its way to being ready to support real-time communications but Microsoft’s Hyper-V technology is a much further behind in this area.
Virtualization has become a reality for unified communications and voice thanks in part to VMware’s latest version of vSphere, which the vendor spent the last two years optimizing for real time communications and also the latest Intel Nahalem processor, which gives servers the computing power they need to make these applications work in a virtualized environment.
Aside from taking in most of the keynotes, meeting with vendors and chatting up attendees to learn about what they’re working on, I’ve picked out a handful of sessions that I think relate to key trends in the industry right now. I’m going to attend as many of them as I can.
1. Integrating Group Video with PBX and UC
Tuesday at 2pm, Brent Kelly of Wainhouse Research
For the last few years vendor keynotes at VoiceCon have invariably featured demos of simple, one-click video conferencing from within desktop UC clients. They make it looks so easy, but all of know that it isn’t always that simple. I think Brent’s session on integrating video with PBX and UC environments should be interesting. I look forward to the Q&A session.
2. Organizational Impacts of Convergence
Tuesday at 4pm with Don Van Doren of UniComm Consulting
I’ve attended sessions on this subject in the past and it always generates good discussion. Unified communications, for those who dive really deep into it, can create some headaches for an organization for a number of reasons. First of all, many organization are still consolidating their networking and telecommunications team in the wake of the transition to IP telephony. Then there’s the rise things like communications-enabled business processes, which will force new types of collaboration with enterprise application managers. Also, enterprises need to rethink their help desk when they dive into UC. Tier 1 support too often elevates every trouble ticket to the top because they don’t understand the technology well. Many UC and network management vendors are trying to address this one specific problem. Which leads me to…
3. Network Test Tools for Voice and Video
Wednesday at 8am, Moderated by John Bartlett of NetForecast with a panel of representatives from CA, Integrated Research (making of PROGNOSIS), Psytechnics and Apparent Networks.
I still don’t get the sense that many enterprises are properly testing and monitoring their IP telephony and video deployments, perhaps because this requires investment in tools they’re not necessarily familiar with. It’s simply tough to know how well your VoIP system is performing unless you get complaints from your users. These vendors are sort of pushing beyond that and I like to keep tabs on this market.
4. User Forum
Wednesday at 10am, moderated b Eric Krapf of NoJitter and Zeus Kerravala of Yankee Group.
For me this one is all about the panelists. I like to hear straight from these guys what exactly they’re doing with UC. This panel features Donna Zett, CIO of Serta International; Jason Norton, director of operations and telecom at Scripps Networks; Duane Longhofer, telecom manager at AccuQuote; Darrius Jones, executive director of channel management and technical fellow at USAA; and Saustrup Arne, computer operations manager at Alamo Community College District.
5. SIP Trunking Case Studies
Wednesday at 1pm, moderated by Sorrell Slaymaker of Unified IT systems.
Everyone seems to be wondering aloud about whether and/or when SIP trunking services will become mainstream. Vendors like Acme Packet will tell you that time is very near. I’m sure we’ll hear a lot about SIP trunking from vendors and carriers at the show this year, but I’m most interested in hearing from enterprises who are actually doing it. That’s why I’ll try to attend this session, which will feature engineers Steve Blair of the University of Pennsylvania and Larry Riba of Alpine Access.
6. Challenges in Achieving the Promise of Presence
Wednesday at 3:15pm, moderated by Don Van Doren
I think everyone is intrigued by the idea of presence, but I haven’t talked to a great deal of people who are actually doing much with it yet. Vendor offerings in this area are very uneven. I think this should be an interesting panel discussion simply because of who is on the panel. It features representatives of Cisco, Avaya, IBM and Microsoft, all major players in the UC space. Some of them have excellent presence products. Others, not so much.
Gawker is musing that terrorists prefer video chat to email or Twitter when it comes to communicating with their operatives. Evidence? Exhibit number 1 is the experience of writer John Battelle, who was told to stop using in-flight Wi-Fi to video chat with his wife and kids while flying on United Airlines yesterday.
When he pressed the flight attendant on why he couldn’t use iChat to talk to his family, the attendant suggested that he could “communicate with a terrorist on the ground.” I suppose that’s true, but couldn’t he use IM, email, Twitter, Facebook or any other countless apps to do the same thing?
The visionaries and the evangelists at vendors like Cisco, Polycom, HP Halo et al would have you believe that the immersive experience of telepresence videoconferencing will eliminate some if not almost all of the need for business travel as the technology is adopted more broadly across the globe. The need for face-to-face meetings among business partners and between corporate branches will decrease as companies realize that telepresence is a feasible alternative to face-to-face meetings in many if not most circumstances.
The notion that telepresence could reduce business travel should be bad news to the travel industry, right? Business travel is bread and butter for airlines and hotels.
And yet, hotel chains appear to be embracing the technology. Both Marriott International and Starwood Hotels and Casinos have opened public telepresence rooms in a couple of pilot locations this month, both using Cisco’s TelePresence technology. Mariott has opened rooms in New York City and Bethesda, Md., and plans to open at least a dozen more across the U.S. and Europe, China and Brazil. Starwood opened rooms at its W Chicago City Center and at its Sheraton on the Park in Sydney, Australia. It has plans to open more rooms in New York, Toronto and Los Angeles this summer.
Mary Casey, vice president of corporate global sales at Starwood, told me her company was prompted to install telepresence rooms in its hotels after speaking with large corporate customers who were looking to reduce their travel costs. She said one of Starwood’s largest customers in Chicago said told her that it had been investing in telepresence rooms across the world, but there were certain regional hubs where it wasn’t practical for the company to make an investment in the technology because a company-owned telepresence room in such locations wouldn’t be used enough to justify the investment.
Casey says that large corporate clients, especially those who have invested in telepresence in certain locations, are the main targets of her hotels’ telepresence rooms. She said smaller companies haven’t expressed much interest in such services yet. However, she thinks that might just be a matter of educating the market on the experience the technology can offer. She also expects some non-corporate clients to use the technology, based on what she’s heard from Tata Communications, Starwood’s technology services partner in the telepresence venture.
“If we listen to our partners at Tata, they’re beginning to see their public telepresence offerings used by different segments, such as suites used by families who are spread around the world, who want to celebrate events like a birthday party,” she said.
Casey and Starwood clearly see telepresence as an opportunity, not a threat. Perhaps someday some hotels will have just as many telepresence rooms as they do beds.
Now airlines, on the other hand — I don’t see them adapting quite as well.
The Cisco/Tandberg acquisition catapulted the video conferencing and telepresence market into a competitive frenzy. Don’t expect this rivalrous race to slow down any time soon.
Shortly after Cisco brought Tandberg into the fold, Logitech acquired LifeSize, and earlier this month, Radvision announced plans to acquire Aethra.
Incumbent Polycom quickly mobilized with a counteroffensive play, hyper-focusing on a strategy to retain their current market share and pull customers away from the monolithic Cisco. Forging new partnerships, cultivating deep alliances with existing partners and an aggressive focus on product development is Polycom’s core strategy.
Agito Networks is mostly known for its dual-mode fixed-mobile convergence solutions, helping enterprise get their mobile phones off the cellular network and tied into a corporate PBX via Wi-Fi networks.
This week Agito came out with something slightly new that is targeted at a very specific, yet pricey problem faced by many companies which do international business.
Many corporate telecom and mobility managers today probably support executives who travel internationally and need to buy a temporary international roaming plan for their smartphones while on the road. These short-term voice roaming minutes are pricey. We’re talking more than $1 per minute in many cases. If you have a lot of guys on the road, this can get out of hand fast.
This week Agito announced Agito Global Enterprise, a feature in the 4.0 release of its RoamAnywhere routers and clients. This feature will automatically handover voice calls from an international cellular voice network and convert it into a VoIP call over a 3G data connection. Since most short-term international roaming plans offer relatively lower flat fees in the range of $20 or $30 for a unlimited data, this could be a huge savings for mobile employees who are traveling overseas. A $20 flat fee is a bargain compared to the $300-$400 a worker might rack up in talk time with a typical arrangement.
Late last month Pejman Roshan, founder and chief marketing officer for Agito, visited my office and gave me a demo of the cellular to VoIP handover on both a BlackBerry 9700 and an iPhone, both of which Agito also now supports as of this week. The voice quality was on par with what you might expect from either device, although there was a probably a half-second of latency in the call. Roshan attributed this to the fact that we were using a custom built demo version. The production version won’t be available until next month.
Image from Technodorm.com
We love our smartphones. It’s understandable, this unique attachment we have to our intelligent devices. The familiar, comforting glow of the LCD screen. The soothing pulse of a blinking message light. Smartphones have become indespensible for both consumer and business use.
I use mine as an alarm clock, a GPS system, a camera, a video camera, an MP3 player, a calendar, oh, and I even place and receive calls with it. I check and respond to text messages, voicemail, email, Facebook and Twitter. I won’t even mention the available smartphone apps. We all know there’s an app for everything, if not, it’s coming soon. Check back tomorrow.
For personal use, they are indispensible. As a business tool, these pocket-sized powerhouses equip on-the-go employees with the power of a laptop. People not only use smartphones to access multimodal messages, they use smartphones to store and retrieve valuable records and files.
The smartphone won’t push the laptop into extinction any time soon, primarily because of its size. However, with Bluetooth and USB keyboard add ons and wireless connectivity to a larger external display, such as a hotel TV, smartphones could be accountable for dustier laptops in the near future.
Smartphone security becomes a bigger issue as employees use smartphones as an adjunct to the laptop or PC, as does the management of these mobile devices. Remote lock/wipe functions are available for lost or stolen phones. Anti-virus client applications, firewalls and back up can help safeguard proprietary or sensitive data. Fingerprint sensors are becoming increasingly popular as an added measure of security.
Cisco Systems’ acquisition of videoconferencing vendor Tandberg is driving Cisco’s rivals to Polycom, just as we expected.
When we reported on the Cisco-Tandberg deal in October, Ira Weinstein, senior analyst with Wainhouse Research, told us that the acquisition would force other unified communications and telephony vendors to embrace Polycom in an effort to differentiate their own enterprise video strategies.
Siemens Enterprise Communications made its move this month, announcing a new videoconferencing alliance with Polycom. As Mike Vizard at CTOEdge pointed out, Tandberg had been Siemens’ go-to partner on video solutions prior to the Cisco-Tandberg deal. Siemens will continue to support Tandberg products with its OpenScape UC products, but Polycom is now its preferred partner.
Yesterday, Polycom picked up an infrastructure partner, too, when it announced a deal with Juniper Networks. In mid-2010, the two companies will release updates to their products that will allow service providers to optimize their networks for Polycom videoconferencing products.
Stacey Higginbotham over at GigaOM says that Juniper’s partnership with Polycom won’t work.
I’m not sure that Juniper and Polycom are an ideal match, mostly because tying the product to the networking gear is a strategy that ultimately follows along with Cisco’s aims. As a smaller rival to Cisco, Juniper can’t win by playing by the same rules as the larger company — it needs to break them.
Regardless of whether Juniper and Polycom’s new alliance works, it’s clear that Cisco’s acquisition of Tandberg has Cisco’s rivals in multiple markets looking to work with Polycom. Not only are other UC and telephony vendors embracing Polycom. Rival network infrastructure vendors are cuddling up to them as well. Competition in the videoconferencing market is alive and well.