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The 10 stories that dominated UC news in 2015

Take a look at the UC news stories that shaped unified communications in 2015, from the rise of team collaboration apps to the changing video conferencing service market.

The rise of real-time collaboration tools, the Microsoft vs. Cisco debate, and the blending of consumer and business applications were hot topics this year as organizations look to streamline workflows and improve productivity. These stories indicate the direction of unified communications and enterprise communications as the industry heads into 2016.

As 2015 comes to a close, take a look back at the 10 UC news highlights that showed the trends and topics most important to enterprises, including UC services deployment and new technology adoption.

1. Microsoft vs. Cisco debate rages on

Microsoft and Cisco continued their battle over the UC and collaboration market in 2015. Microsoft stepped up the competition with the announcement that it was bringing telephony to Office 365, challenging Cisco's dominance as a telephony platform. Microsoft offering a telephony service could edge out Cisco in organizations that use Office 365 for UC and Cisco for telephony, if Microsoft can prove its mettle in the market.

But the 2015 debate between Microsoft and Cisco doesn't just come down to features or cost. Organizational politics can cause a hot debate when employees are in separate Microsoft and Cisco camps, which makes getting an entire organization standardized on a single UC vendor difficult.

2. Microsoft pushes for more collaboration tools

Microsoft put collaboration to the forefront with its UC offerings by adding new tools to Office 365 and Office 2016. Microsoft introduced OfficeGraph and Delve to Office 365 to unify its collaboration portfolio with analytics and social features. Microsoft also announced it was rolling out the digital design app Sway to Office 365 business and education subscribers to improve team collaboration.

Office 2016 also saw the addition of more collaboration tools, including Groups, which allows small teams to set up a workspace for messaging, shared calendars and online storage. Microsoft also tightened Office 2016's integration with Skype for Business. These new collaboration tools are aimed at helping Microsoft better compete in a crowded market.

3. Cisco focuses on team collaboration

Cisco made big UC news when it officially unveiled its team collaboration app, Cisco Spark, at Enterprise Connect in March. Spark was Cisco's answer to popular small-team collaboration apps that have been creeping into the enterprise. In addition to offering persistent workspaces and mobile collaboration capabilities, Spark was designed to be complementary to Cisco's WebEx conferencing service.

Cisco also updated its collaboration certifications to reflect a changing industry as the original certifications focused only on voice and video. The updated Cisco Certified Network Associate Collaboration and Cisco Certified Network Professional Collaboration certifications now cover mobile apps and collaboration tools and focus on the skills needed for UC and collaboration deployments.

4. Video conferencing's changing landscape

Video conferencing underwent a transformation in 2015. More organizations are moving away from hardware and opting for software- or cloud-based video conferencing services. Revenue for hardware-based video conferencing endpoints and infrastructure is stagnating as a result, according to a report from ABI Research. Gartner created a new Magic Quadrant for group video systems as a result of the market becoming less about endpoints and more about the ecosystem of endpoints, services and infrastructure.

New technology and services also sought to meet organizations' changing video conferencing needs. Microsoft released the Surface Hub as a replacement for aging conferencing room equipment and includes features ranging from a digital whiteboard to content sharing. Vidyo announced its partnership with Stampede on a drone-based video conferencing service to target an emerging market of drone use in industrial and government verticals.

5. The blending of consumer and business tools

Enterprise-grade collaboration apps are merging with consumer tools so users can feel more comfortable using these communication services for work. ThinkingPhones announced in August its integration with Google's Gmail through a Google Chrome extension. The integration was aimed at making communication more seamless for users who don't want to switch between apps to use specific capabilities. Google was rumored to be quietly developing an enterprise-grade video conferencing service, Google Meet, which would allow enterprises to use Google Hangouts for video calls.

Facebook has jumped into the social enterprise market with Facebook at Work and scored itself a major customer with the Royal Bank of Scotland. The service promises the feel of consumer Facebook with the capabilities of enterprise social software. But Facebook at Work will need to address privacy concerns and application integrations in 2016.

6. Real-time collaboration gains prominence

Analysts predicted 2015 would be the year of integration with voice and video capabilities embedded into business applications. Vendors have responded with offerings like Cisco Spark and Unify Circuit, and technology like APIs and WebRTC have made it easier for developers to embed communication capabilities in employee workflows.

The growing popularity of real-time collaboration may mean legacy services may not be able to keep up with changing business needs. Some real-time collaboration tools, like Spark, add value to legacy services, like WebEx, while others could replace legacy services entirely.

7. WebRTC challenges legacy communication platforms

WebRTC is often seen as the next step in enterprise communications as it lets developers embed browser-based communication into business applications. WebRTC also offers federation, which allows users to communicate without having to use the same service. This could be a threat to standalone UC services, like Skype for Business and Cisco Jabber, which don't offer the same flexibility as WebRTC.

But WebRTC isn't going to decimate legacy UC platforms anytime soon. While WebRTC-based messaging platforms like Slack are growing in popularity and putting pressure on UC vendors, the market data shows the majority of businesses are still buying enterprise-grade UC products.

8. UC deployment roadblocks

Organizations faced their fair share of issues when deploying UC services. A Nemertes Research report found that 43% of IT leaders rated their UC efforts as "successful" in 2015, down from 61% in 2014. The drop in success was attributed to a lack of user training. Employees didn't know how to use their UC services or simply weren't aware of their availability. Many organizations are now consolidating to a single-vendor UC architecture to address struggles with user experience, interoperability and costs.

Microsoft's rebranding of Lync to Skype for Business led to fears among IT managers that users would mistake the service for consumer Skype. Just as education is vital to adopting new UC services, education was vital to the Skype for Business rebrand.

9. Organizations look to replace email or improve it

Email is gaining a reputation for being unproductive, overwhelming and a distraction to users. Many organizations spent 2015 looking for alternatives to email that could support better internal communication and employee productivity. Vendors have started offering collaboration services that businesses could use to replace or revamp email, including the IBM Verse platform that combines email, calendaring and social networking.

Other vendors have also looked to integrate services that would improve the email experience and solve productivity and collaboration issues. Microsoft acquired startup Sunrise to improve its Outlook mobile app on iOS and Android devices. Microsoft intends to use the acquisition to give mobile users a more consistent experience and better integration with third-party apps.

10. Software-defined UC networks

Software-defined networking (SDN) is still in its early stages, but vendors and organizations are seeing how SDN can improve UC network performance. Sonus Networks acquired Treq Labs to integrate SDN technology with its session border controllers to dynamically manage UC traffic and improve quality of service.

SDN can ease the bandwidth burden of real-time voice and video traffic on the network by automating the process of prioritizing that traffic. While SDN is not quite ready for UC use cases just yet, vendors like Hewlett Packard Enterprise Networking and NEC are working with UC vendors like Microsoft to make SDN for UC a reality.

Next Steps

How one business replaced email with team collaboration apps

How UC buyers can take advantage of the Microsoft vs. Cisco debate

The cloud is revving up the video conferencing service market

This was last published in December 2015

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