New trends are reshaping the unified communications industry as organizations embrace the cloud and employees push new methods of collaboration. These trends are influencing the direction of UC vendor portfolios and introducing new technology, such as AI, into the workplace:
1. Digital transformation and the cloud. For the past few years, many organizations have developed digital transformation initiatives to maximize productivity and efficiency in the workplace. Now, those initiatives should begin to pay off, said Matthew Jackson, senior solutions engineer at performance management vendor IR, in a recent webinar.
Digital transformation initiatives “really have to stand on their own two feet and deliver the benefits,” he said.
Cloud deployments seem to go hand-in-hand with digital transformation, but many organizations have realized the cloud doesn’t mean an all-or-nothing migration. Hybrid environments will become the more popular deployment option over the next few years, he said.
2. New ways of communicating. One-to-many voice and video calls are growing in popularity. Jackson said conference calls make up 40% of all voice traffic in the enterprise. Multipoint video is also becoming more popular. The combination of the two, however, could negatively affect enterprise networks and network architecture, he said.
The unified communications industry is also moving toward in-browser and in-app communications, such as embedded web chat, as a preferred communications channel. Jackson said early adopters are the drivers for embedded chat and in-app communications in the enterprise.
Embedded communications “will start to take over low-level transactions that you don’t need a phone call for,” he said.
3. Emerging technology. AI will become more prevalent in the unified communications industry, especially in the contact center where the technology can be used for simple transactions that rely on speech recognition and interactive voice response. As users become more comfortable with consumer AI at home, such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, they will become more comfortable with AI in the workplace.
“With the fear factor removed, these kinds of bots will be increasingly accepted into a business environment,” he said.
4. The vendor effect. As a result of these unified communications industry trends, the “big three” vendors — Microsoft, Cisco and Avaya — are positioned for a strong year, Jackson said.
Microsoft will continue to focus on Microsoft Teams and messaging, while Cisco will extend its market reach by consolidating its BroadSoft acquisition into its Spark collaboration software, he said. Jackson also expects Avaya to be resurgent after its bankruptcy with a new focus on the cloud.
Amazon could be a wild card in the unified communications industry as it gains momentum with its Amazon Web Services cloud offering and UC product, Chime.
“If we look at the totality of the business and growth, it’s not unreasonable to expect they will have a much larger UC voice-based business this time next year,” he said.
A little more than a year ago, Facebook crashed the unified communications party. The largest social network in the world launched Workplace by Facebook, a collaborative platform for business communications.
Facebook said last month more than 30,000 organizations use Workplace by Facebook worldwide, which is more than double the amount from April 2017. Some big-name customers are using Workplace by Facebook, including Walmart, Heineken, Spotify and Lyft.
Walmart, as one of the largest companies in the world with 2.3 million employees, is especially noteworthy. Facebook, at last tally, has more than 2 billion monthly active users of its consumer product.
Because of their respective sizes, both Facebook and Walmart have nearly unmatched scale, said Jon Arnold, a unified communications analyst, in a recent webinar. By landing one of the largest retailers in the world, Workplace by Facebook has shown it’s a serious offering that businesses could consider.
The popularity of messaging
Business Facebook is not the same as consumer Facebook. Workers are not exactly posting pictures of their pets, kids or favorite meals. But Workplace by Facebook exploits the familiarity users already have with its consumer interface, thus giving it a huge advantage over other collaboration services.
Enterprise IT groups would certainly favor a service that’s easy to deploy and use, which helps with end-user adoption. At the same time, IT does not have to provision and support these software-based, messaging-centric services since lines of business can easily download them and start collaborating.
Workplace by Facebook, which has a free version, includes messaging, voice and video calls, live video streaming, file storage and the ability to create work groups. Enterprise features include administrative controls, single sign-on, and APIs for custom integrations and bots. Other enterprise features include integrations with e-discovery, compliance providers, G Suite, Windows Azure Active Directory and more.
Workplace by Facebook and many other similar services — including Slack, Cisco Spark and Microsoft Teams — are looking to capitalize on the popularity of messaging communications. Additionally, a young generation of workers, now flooding the job market, prefers messaging over voice communications.
A second wave of disruption
Messaging in the business world has evolved in three waves, Arnold said. The first wave of disruptors included services like Slack, HipChat and Redbooth, among others. These apps focused intently on persistent, short-form messaging that addressed collaboration gaps.
Next, traditional and established UC providers adapted and launched messaging tools or acquired them. UC vendors were late to adopt messaging since they were relying heavily on legacy applications.
Now, a second wave of disruptors has surfaced with the likes of Facebook and Amazon — two names that are too big to ignore, Arnold said. Earlier this year, Amazon launched Amazon Chime, a UC service that includes online meetings, video conferencing, calls, chat and the ability to share content.
As discount retailer Walmart competes with online retailer Amazon, the former needs to make the in-store buying experience more compelling to keep people from buying online. One way to do that, Arnold said, is to empower workers in the stores to be more responsive to customers. Mobile messaging devices and apps can connect employees to get information for customers.
Traditionally, Arnold said, retailers like Walmart are late to adopt technology. As a result, retailers need to deploy technology that’s easy to use, which streamlines end-user adoption. Workplace by Facebook offers that ease of use with an interface that’s familiar to users.
“If you can land a Walmart,” Arnold said, “you can land a lot more other retailers, too.”
Standardizing their platforms
Ease of use, in particular, is a strong point for second-wave disruptors Facebook and Amazon; and that strength should help them in the business market. Historically, established UC vendors have not been so focused on ease of use, Arnold said.
Facebook and Amazon also know how to engage with consumers. And since they’ve saturated the consumer market, Facebook and Amazon need to tap the business market to feed their own growth strategies.
Going forward, what if Facebook and Amazon become preferred enterprise communications channels and standardized certain protocols and codecs around their platforms? Because of their scale, other UC services would need to fit into the Facebook and Amazon models. Could you imagine? You might not have to for much longer.
The workforce is evolving as organizations focus their efforts on digital transformation strategies. New approaches to technology are influencing employee productivity and collaboration. Five key technology trends are expected to drive the evolution of digital workforces in 2018.
1. Artificial intelligence. Voice-enabled virtual assistants in the enterprise are expected to see growth as organizations adapt consumer AI technology, such as Amazon Alexa, for business purposes.
Many organizations are evaluating AI for the digital workforce to use virtual assistants to prioritize emails and chat bots to automate customer service processes, said Alex Bennett, director of end-user computing at Dimension Data, in a recent webinar.
2. Smart workplaces. An extension of smart buildings, smart workplaces are designed around the activities of employees and connect them to business processes using internet of things, AI and big data.
“We see clients bring in activity-based working and architects to design an office space to speak to an activity that people need to carry out during the day,” Bennett said.
3. WebRTC. WebRTC may finally be maturing with the digital workforce in 2018, according to Joe Manuele, group executive for customer experience and workplace productivity at Dimension Data, a technology services provider. Manuele said there is a new generation of video conferencing services from providers like Zoom and Highfive that use WebRTC browser-based communications.
“Once you get a critical mass of people using it, then it becomes absolutely critical for the key browser providers to support that type of technology,” Bennett said.
4. Video. Video is becoming the de-facto communication method as organizations look to go beyond messaging, said Bennett.
However, organizations must heed the security, compliance and regulatory requirements of their respective industries. Financial companies, for example, must make sure all components of a video call are recorded, not just audio, he said.
5. From BYOD to BYOA. Organizations are shifting away from allowing employees to use their preferred mobile device for work. Instead, companies are starting to allow employees to use their preferred productivity and collaboration apps, said Manuele.
However, organizations should encourage employees to use the more secured version of an app, such as moving the user to the enterprise edition of Slack.
“This is a wave we’re not going to be able to stop, but should actually encourage,” he said.
As more organizations move their communications infrastructure to the cloud, session border controllers must follow suit.
In 2016, nearly 40% of North American business users were using some form of IP telephony, such as SIP trunking, voice over IP and cloud unified communications, according to Frost & Sullivan, a market research firm based in San Antonio.
Organizations are also increasingly using third-party apps that incorporate VoIP and other cloud communications services. Session border controllers (SBCs) are at the heart of these services as they provide the interoperability to deliver voice networks at scale, while securing links between services and customers, according to Frost & Sullivan analyst Michael Brandenburg.
“Cloud-ready SBCs are a strategic infrastructure investment,” he said in a recent webinar. “Picking the right one paves the way for the cloud-first communication opportunities that are coming to market.”
Brandenburg offered four considerations for organizations evaluating cloud-based SBC vendors.
1. Software independence. SBCs are no longer just hardware-based products, which creates flexibility for communications infrastructure and offers new cost structures and development cycles.
With a cloud-based product, SBC vendors can develop a common software product that can support multiple virtualized environments and optimize data center resources, he said. Cloud-based SBCs also shift costs from a traditional capex model to opex-based subscription licensing.
2. Cloud scale. Many organizations are using infrastructure-as-a-service platforms from Amazon Web Services and OpenStack for their cloud communications.
However, these platforms have specific architectural requirements that must be met before real-time communications can be deployed, Brandenburg said. SBC vendors must be able to handle diverse processing requirements while using minimal infrastructure resoures.
3. Advanced media handling. SBCs must handle a wide range of media types. Media codecs, for example, are constantly refined and updated, while new media formats are emerging on the market. SBC vendors must adapt to these changing media needs.
“When looking at SBC vendors, you need to understand their commitment to maintaining existing codecs and capabilities and their willingness to quickly embrace new codecs coming to the market,” Brandenburg said.
4. Analytics capabilities. Moving communications infrastructure to the cloud means SBCs must collect, monitor and analyze a wide range of data, particularly if SBCs are deployed in multiple locations. An SBC’s analytics platform must be as reliable and scalable as the SBC itself, Brandenburg said.
“Service providers have service-level agreements with customers and they’ve got to be able to measure that,” he said.
Virtual and augmented reality technologies are slowly making their way into the enterprise as new use cases emerge. Organizations looking to deploy virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology to create more immersive collaboration must carefully evaluate hardware, software and the workflows they want to enhance.
“If your goal is to make data actionable in the field, think about what is the ideal solution,” Nall said in a recent webinar. Organizations must evaluate what they can accomplish with VR and AR technology and how users might adopt this new form of collaboration.
Organizations must think about how they want to present augmented data in a user’s field of view in the headset and avoid overwhelming users with too much information. Nall said the current trend is to use visual cues and icons to present information instead of text.
Organizations must also consider the types of objects they want to create with VR and AR technology. The size and shape of a virtual object, as well as the real-life surface that users work on can affect the success of VR and AR collaboration. Reflective or transparent surfaces, for example, can cause problems with displaying augmented and virtual content, Nall said.
Evaluate hardware and software options
Once the ideal use case for VR and AR technology is chosen, organizations must evaluate the available hardware and software options.
With VR and AR software, organizations can develop applications in-house to create their augmentations or deploy a packaged service from a vendor, Nall said. Packaged services, however, tend to be more expensive with upfront costs and integration costs with legacy systems.
Organizations can choose from two types of hardware: monocular or binocular headsets. Monocular headsets display content in one eye, much like Google Glass. Binocular headsets, like the Microsoft HoloLens, use both eyes and provide a more immersive experience. Binocular headsets are often two to three times more expensive than monocular headsets, Nall said.
“You should realize that hardware is ephemeral,” he warned. The VR and AR industry is evolving quickly and most hardware will be obsolete within 18 months.
Hardware security is also an important consideration. While headsets may not hold a significant amount of data, they are often connected to the internet and can be a doorway into the network if hacked. Before deployment, organizations should loop in their IT or security team, deploy mobile device management and additional security measures such as access and authentication.
Gartner has unveiled a new Magic Quadrant report for content collaboration platforms as file synchronization and sharing becomes more collaborative and workflow-centric.
The report originally focused on the enterprise file synchronization and sharing market. Gartner updated the report to reflect the market’s evolution toward content-based collaboration among individuals and teams, digital transformation and content management.
By 2020, 80% of large and midsize organizations will have deployed one or more content collaboration platforms as part of their content productivity and collaboration strategy, according to the report.
Content collaboration platforms are evaluated in the report as standalone products with file sync and sharing as their core capabilities. But the platforms also offer collaboration and content management features and include integrations with cloud collaboration suites such as Microsoft Office 365 and Google G Suite.
The content collaboration market also touches the team collaboration market. Content collaboration vendors, for instance, have integrated their products with team collaboration services such as Slack, Microsoft Teams and Cisco Spark.
Content collaboration products may also include APIs and other tools that can integrate with services and clients that are not native to the platform. APIs also allow organizations and developers to build apps around the content collaboration capabilities.
Several factors are driving the adoption of content collaboration platforms, according to the report. Many organizations are deploying these platforms to support productivity and collaboration for mobile and remote workers. Content collaboration platforms are also part of organizations’ cloud storage adoption strategies.
Organizations are also turning to content collaboration platforms as they reevaluate their on-premises investments. Some organizations are looking to deploy content collaboration platforms to replace traditional, on-premises content storage services, while others are looking to these platforms to modernize their network storage infrastructure.
In the Magic Quadrant report, Box, Microsoft OneDrive for Business, Dropbox, Citrix, Google Drive, Axway Syncplicity and Egnyte were named leaders. BlackBerry and Accellion were named visionaries. Intralinks by Synchronoss, Thru, Ctera and HighQ were named niche players.
Many organizations are implementing digital transformation initiatives to boost productivity, cut costs and increase revenue. But how do organizations ensure the success of their digital transformation initiatives? The answer may lie in unified communications and collaboration, or UCC.
In a recent study, Nemertes Research analyzed the digital transformation efforts of various organizations. The firm surveyed more than 700 IT leaders and found successful organizations invest more in foundational technologies, such as UC, WAN services and data center infrastructure.
In particular, successful organizations invested 72% more in UCC than companies with unsuccessful digital transformation initiatives.
“They want to make sure the foundation is set to support all these transformative applications and initiatives,” Robin Gareiss, president of Nemertes, said in a recent webinar. “What could be worse than putting out a video channel for customers and the network doesn’t support it and fails?”
Gareiss said UC straddles the line between foundational and innovative technology. Certain areas of UC — such as voice communications, instant messaging and presence — are considered foundational. But UC becomes innovative within digital transformation with the introduction of new technology, such as team collaboration, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Performance monitoring software can also help organizations see a return on their digital transformation investment. The software, often deployed by third-party providers such as IR and Riverbed, tracks UCC app performance, including uptime and root-cause analysis.
Gareiss said organizations that deployed performance management software saw an increase in adoption and cost savings of their UCC apps compared with organizations that don’t use these software tools. Organizations that deployed performance management tools saw a 19% savings on their UCC implementation costs and 58% savings on their UCC operational costs compared to organizations that don’t use performance management tools.
“The apps are working better and employees are happier with what they’re using,” she said of the effectiveness of performance management software.
The contact-center infrastructure market is in transition. Customers are now looking for cloud-based products, integrations with customer relationship management and workforce optimization platforms, and contact-center flexibility in their unified communications deployments, according to a recent Gartner Magic Quadrant report.
At its core, the contact-center infrastructure market includes products — such as equipment and software — needed to operate call centers for telephony and multichannel support. But certain trends are changing how organizations purchase and deploy contact-center infrastructure products.
For example, contact-center infrastructure can be deployed as part of a customer-engagement center, such as customer relationship management and social media channels, to give organizations a single view of the customer. The technology between contact-center infrastructure and customer-engagement centers has significant overlap, but little overlap among vendors. However, Gartner expects the two markets to merge over the next few years.
Contact center as a service (CCaS) is certainly another trend that has affected the market as organizations look to replace their contact-center infrastructure with cloud-based products. Certain factors are driving organizations to the cloud, including the potential to cut costs and scale licenses to meet seasonal staffing needs, according to the report.
CCaS also affected the vendor rankings in the report, which rates the on-premises contact-center infrastructure market. A vendor that shifted too far from on-premises contact-center infrastructure in favor of CCaS could see a lower score for the completeness-of-vision criteria, according to Gartner. All the vendors in the report offer some form of CCaS.
These market shifts have affected the rank of several vendors in the report, and six vendors have been excluded. ALE, Altitude, Collab and ShoreTel were dropped from this year’s report since the companies did not meet Gartner’s criteria for premises-based contact-center product and service revenue. Interactive Intelligence and Presence Technology were excluded since they were acquired by other vendors.
Genesys and Cisco were named market leaders in the report. Enghouse Interactive, Huawei, Mitel and NEC were named challengers. Avaya, Aspect and SAP were named visionaries. Vocalcom, Unify and ZTE were named niche players.
Microsoft’s collaboration story is pretty muddled. The unified communications vendor has several applications with overlapping features: Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams, Yammer, Office 365 Groups and even Outlook all handle varying degrees of collaboration. Of all these products, Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams are perhaps the two most ripe for consolidation.
Right now, the two products are separate entities that complement each other, said Irwin Lazar, an analyst with Nemertes Research, a tech advisory firm based in Mokena, Ill.
“In the longer term, I think you’ll see Teams take the place of Skype for Business,” he said. “If I were a company looking at rolling out Teams and supporting Skype for Business, I might hold off until Microsoft does the inevitable conversion of those two products.”
Skype for Business offers both on-premises and cloud products as well as a hybrid option. Microsoft Teams is a newer cloud-based, messaging-centric collaboration app. Both products are part of Office 365 and feature messaging, presence, and voice and video communications. However, Skype for Business has additional features including PSTN calling and conferencing.
Does Microsoft UC lack harmony?
Microsoft, like many other vendors, is prioritizing development of cloud services rather than focusing on premises-based products.
Additionally, team applications are becoming the next UC client, Lazar said. For example, while Cisco still supports its collaboration service Jabber, the vendor is pushing new development into its Spark product. RingCentral, too, recently revamped its UC product based on its acquisition of the team collaboration tool Glip.
When compared to Microsoft, other UC vendors — including Cisco, RingCentral, Mitel and BroadSoft — have more harmonized products that converge team messaging and UC. Microsoft is probably a year away from having that kind of harmony, Lazar said.
“They still have work to do to improve the overall user experience, and making team chat fundamental to what they’re doing,” Lazar said. “But, in the mid- to large-size market, they’re still the ones to beat.”
Looking for a clear roadmap
Meantime, UC analyst Dave Michels raised his own questions about the vision and leadership of Skype for Business. He, too, sees Teams bulking up and Skype for Business slimming or slowing down.
“It seems reasonable Microsoft might double-down on Teams as it is new, home-grown, built for Office 365 and appears to be on the fast track,” Michels wrote. “I expect Skype for Business will see a few more incremental improvements . . . but I don’t expect any big innovations in 2017.”
Michels also said the Skype for Business roadmap is unclear. After management moves at Microsoft, he also wondered who exactly is steering the Skype for Business ship. He added: “It might make sense to move Skype for Business development resources to Teams until the dust settles.”
Skype for Business did receive a couple of updates in March with the addition of auto attendant and call queues to the Skype for Business cloud PBX. Skype for Business software has also made its way into meeting rooms with the help of hardware from partner vendors Crestron, Logitech and Polycom. Microsoft also announced in March a preview release of Skype for Business Online Call Analytics, a dashboard that helps IT managers identify and address call-quality issues.
Microsoft’s current lack of a collaboration vision hasn’t exactly hurt the company. At last tally, Office 365 had more than 100 million monthly commercial active users.
These days, disruption and innovation entwine like a hashtag. As an example, Slack and other messaging platforms have ruffled the unified communications market with a new way of working and collaborating.
Several factors have sparked the success of messaging platforms and disrupted traditional UC offerings. For instance, consumer communication habits, such as texting, have bled into the business world. Younger workers, reared on the internet and mobile devices, prefer texting rather than calling. Teams are more dispersed, too, which underscores the need for new collaboration tools. And, alas, work never stops in this always-on, project-based business environment.
Aside from shifting workplace and workforce trends, the technology has also evolved to focus on cloud, software and web-based communications, which aim to ease UC deployments.
Slack and other messaging platforms — such as Bitrix24, HipChat, Redbooth and Ryver — offer variations to traditional UC. Enterprises would be well advised to track these new tools to ensure their UC services are keeping pace with this collaboration transformation and determine if messaging platforms coalesce with their communication needs, according to independent analyst Jon Arnold.
“Slack represents a new way of working,” Arnold said in a recent Ziff Davis webinar. “It’s different but not necessarily better. Slack is not the ultimate solution for all types of working.”
Freemium model drives rapid adoption
Ultimately, messaging platforms buck traditional UC, which has its roots in telephony. At the same time, Slack and others are morphing into more robust collaboration products as they incorporate voice and video capabilities. Slack is also rolling out an enterprise plan that touts enhanced security and administrative controls.
At last count, Slack boasted more than 4 million daily active users and 1.25 million paying users. Slack is backed by nearly $4 billion from investors.
The free version of Slack and other messaging platforms has been particularly disruptive to the UC market, Arnold said, as end users can easily download the app for free and test it without IT intervention. This freemium model also fuels rapid adoption, and users can upgrade to paid versions with more features.
“Starting out with free is a good way to make a big impression,” Arnold said of the messaging platforms.
But the freemium model also has limited features. For companies that have enterprise-grade demands, Slack and other startups might not be the best fit, Arnold said.
A different form of collaboration
Slack also excels via partnerships and integrations with other web-based applications. In particular, Slack’s integration with Google is one to watch, Arnold said. The two companies have deepened their file-sharing capabilities as Google looks to become an enterprise player and compete with Microsoft.
Other notable partnerships include integrations with SAP and IBM to build in chat bots. A Salesforce customer relationship management integration also makes Slack more valuable in the contact center.
For enterprises with roots in on-premises legacy systems, Slack and other cloud-based messaging platforms might be difficult to comprehend. As outsiders, the Slacks of the world approach collaboration differently.
“Their concept of collaboration might be very different from yours,” Arnold said. “I’m not saying one is better than the other, but they will be different.”
Although voice communications is an important driver for conventional forms of UC, mobile-centric messaging can also boost productivity and drive business value.
“This disruption is real,” Arnold said. “And you have to consider — is this disruption or innovation? Is it good or bad? Is it an opportunity or a threat? It’s a bit of both.”