|Issue:||Europe I 2008|
|Topic:||Unified communications without video is nothing new|
|Title:||President and CEO|
|Organisation:||Avistar Communications Corporation|
Simon Moss is the President and CEO of Avistar Communications Corporation, which provides video-enabled desktop unified communications solutions and dynamic network management technology. Prior to joining Avistar, Mr Moss was CEO of Mantas, Inc., which was later acquired by Oracle/I-flex. Before this Moss was a Partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC; President of software business, FNX; Director of Financial Markets at IBM and co-founder of the firm’s Risk Management Practice in London. He also served as Senior Vice President of Standard Chartered Bank and Vice President of Chase Manhattan Bank, N.A.
Unified communications (UC) is the integration of disparate communications technologies – such as telephone, fax, email, instant messaging, presence-awareness and video-conferencing – into a single platform. UC aims to eliminate wasted time due to inefficient communications. It is touted by analysts and sector leaders as a fundamental change in communications but until a way is found to inexpensively and reliably add video to the mix, it may be no more than another good – but insufficient – try.
Convergence has long been one of the watchwords in the ICT sector – too long, in fact. For as much as a decade we’ve been tantalised with tales of a sci-fi future, in which computers will merge with television, communications and the Internet, and all will be available to us whenever we want and wherever we go. As so often seems to be the case, the reality falls disappointingly short of the hype. To be fair, convergence was never going to be achieved in a single pass. It has progressed incrementally, with ongoing improvements to IP networks and accompanying progress in the hardware they plug into and the software that runs on them. Some immense technological, organisational and engineering challenges have been surmounted along the way, bringing us levels of connectivity unimaginable 20 years ago, but wreaking massive changes for many industries and creating new ones altogether. The next ‘next big thing’ is a pure product of this convergence. Unified communications (UC) is the emerging term for the integration of disparate communications technologies – such as telephone, fax, email, instant messaging, presence-awareness and video-conferencing – into a single platform. UC’s objective is to resolve one of the biggest problems facing almost every organization today – wasted time due to inefficient communications systems. As analyst group Gartner put it, “The largest single value of UC is its ability to reduce human latency in business processes.” Microsoft has described the change as being, “as fundamental as the shift from the telegraph to the telephone.” Wainhouse Research and In-Stat, analyst groups that specialise in communications technologies, have jointly released a report that predicts the UC industry will be worth US$48.7 billion within five years and state that, “the way in which individuals communicate and collaborate in the business setting has changed dramatically in the last few years, but we are just on the cusp of even more dramatic change.” Cisco’s snazzy expression for this hyper-connected world is ‘the human network’, aptly inferring the benefits of doing away with the artificial barriers that are a feature of disconnected islands of technology. Is this just more hype from a sector that consistently overplays the benefits of its products? Perhaps, but the UC world is one that some companies are already beginning to inhabit. Like convergence, the emergence of UC is going to be incremental. Many of the solutions proffered today are repacked versions of existing technology, so it will be a few years before significant numbers of us get the full-blown, life-changing package, but it will happen. It’s the world of business communications five years hence that really interests me. UC has the potential to appreciably change the way we work and with whom, how much we travel, and lessen the impact of commerce on the environment. I also see a fundamental flaw in the promises made by many providers of this technology that at best could seriously delay the most meaningful benefits derived from UC, and at worst could limit advances to a backend innovation that offers little to anyone who’s not an IT manager. Let’s begin with the positives. UC lets us see whether distant colleagues and contacts are available and enables me to begin talking to one or many of them with a few clicks of a mouse. Theoretically, these features make team-working achievable with considerably less effort. Less time is spent arranging meetings and we’re freed from punching codes into teleconferencing systems. Moreover, because communications tools are integrated with the main applications I run on my computer, once we’re all connected we can collaborate on the same piece of work with ease. This makes our daily lives easier, more productive and probably more interesting. From an organisational management perspective, the gains are multiplied. UC gives a bird’s eye view of all the electronic communication going on in our operations. We can begin to analyze the paths of interaction, discover teams that have naturally emerged and gauge their productivity. We can establish with whom knowledge resides and use that to compound teams that possess levels of expertise that would otherwise be difficult or expensive to create. The barriers of borders, time zones and even cultures are reduced, helping our organisation act more quickly, decisively and with better information. Think of it as, hybrid of Skype and Facebook for the enterprise, with richer communication as a factor of intra- and inter-business networking. A recent survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit, conducted on behalf of British Telecommunications, found that 69 per cent of companies questioned believed UC would bring productivity gains. Even better news is that a Sage Research study found that 86 per cent of companies using unified communications actually achieved productivity improvements. Close to my own heart are the potential benefits of UC for the planet. Travel is one of our principal sources of carbon emissions, and much of it is hugely wasteful. Take, for example, four people coming to a two hour meeting, each travelling for an hour each way. That’s eight hours travel – a days worth of productivity – just getting to the meeting. Clogged roads and airports mean it’s usually not much fun either. While much effort and research goes into improving the sustainability of the vehicles we drive, ride and fly, demand shows no signs of easing off. Uniquely, UC holds the promise – a realistic and sizeable opportunity – to cut our need to travel in the first place. Companies that equip their staff with the technology in their home and promote even a single day of work without commuting to the office could eliminate a large percentage of their corporate carbon emissions. The need to travel between business premises for meetings could also be cut significantly, from short car journeys to transcontinental flights. These are profound benefits, and certainly worthy of Microsoft’s assertion that UC is as significant as the switch from telegraph to telephone. Unfortunately, I see a big fly in the ointment. It may not be apparent to the technologists, but the benefits being touted are only realized when end users – millions of ordinary working people – actually use the tools as intended. The annals of technology are littered with tales of inventions that would change the world, but never got past first base. The same could befall UC, and here’s why. Most of us already have access to phone, email and instant messaging. They may be islands of technology, but they’re familiar and very reliable. UC may do a fancy job of integration, but my modes of interaction remain pretty much the same. What’s really changed in my life? There is one element in UC that adds something new for the user – video. Companies have long perceived value in face-to-face communications and many have splashed out great sums on video-conferencing systems for this purpose, despite the dedicated room space, hardware and ISDN lines required. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the sunk costs, the chore of walking down the hall to use the thing means they’re greatly underutilised. We may save the pain of travel, but we still have to call or email everyone to arrange a meeting time. Most of us are too lazy, and stick to the phone. Paradoxically, back home we’re already in a video age. In case you hadn’t noticed, look at your kids. The advent of IP-based video software, such as Skype and MSN Live Messenger, has brought video calls to the PC desktop. Better still, these tools are free. Those who have grown up in a digital age have long caught onto this and are used to the richness of communication that comes with video, whether it’s via their PC or 3G mobile phone. If you’re wondering why you don’t have this depth of communication at work, ask your IT manager. Unfortunately, the unmanaged nature of the free software means it has no place on a corporate IP network. Video gobbles too much bandwidth to enable the hundreds or thousands sharing a network to rely upon the call quality. UC software vendors often include IP-based video-conferencing in their products, but since it’s no more enterprise ready than Skype et al, it’s routinely disabled by IT managers. Vendors pursuing a hardware approach will gladly give you video, with the caveat that you’ll need to spend millions on additional network infrastructure. That’s a shame, because desktop video is the ‘game changer’ in UC. Imagine how much more effective you would be if, instead of just hearing, you could see your team when you speak and work together. Imagine if this were the norm for your day-to-day calls and was as quick and easy to use as instant messaging. Without this transformation, the foundations of UC’s purported benefits start to look a little shaky. Do phone calls connected by click rather than by dial pad really break down borders, time zones and cultural barriers? Is it believable that an updated form of teleconferencing will produce serendipitous working relationships with employees we’ve never seen? Is home working going to increase and travel to meetings going to decrease just because I can talk and type at the same time? Companies buying into UC on these assumptions are being sold a pup, and don’t quite know how it will grow up. IT management may be simplified and costs may be reduced, but will UC bring a fundamental shift in human communication as significant as the invention of the telephone? Sorry, but I don’t buy it. UC without desktop video is evolution not revolution.