Google Wave, Cisco WebEx fill demand for hosted unified communications

Google Wave is seizing hosted unified communications market share, but it's facing entrenched enterprise favorites like Cisco WebEx. What the Mountain View marvel is offering in Wave, however, might just be revolutionary enough to change some minds.

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Google Wave could trigger a major rethinking about hosted unified communications, but it's facing enterprise favorites like Cisco WebEx.

What Google is offering in Wave, however, might just be revolutionary enough to change some minds about what is enterprise-ready and what users demand from their communications.

For starters, rather than a specific product or even an application, Google Wave is an open source framework. At its basic level, it lets users create "Waves" -- which are part document, part online conference -- that automatically record the entire session, allowing users to undo or inspect any changes.

Users can be invited or uninvited from a hosted unified communications platform at any time by the Wave owner, and rather than sitting locally on any given computer, Waves are on a hosted server.

Google has left the platform's APIs very open so that the technology can be integrated in any number of other applications, or extended to fit a variety of needs. For example, one already developed extension allows on-the-fly translation among more than 40 languages.

Google Wave developers can -- and are in fact encouraged to -- extend the framework's uses as much as possible.

In fact, Google announced that anyone is free to modify or host his own Wave infrastructure, so an enterprise could theoretically host a Wave server set to its particular security and privacy specifications.

This contrasts sharply with many unified communications offerings that define fairly specifically what capabilities they offer and what they do not, as well as how those capabilities can be accessed.

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"Most of the stuff I've read about [Wave] has been fairly myopic," said Tom Nolle, president of CIMI Corp. "It's not a search strategy. Truthfully, this has nothing to do with email. It's a social communications architecture, around which you can build all sorts of services."

Open communications architectures are nothing new, of course: SIP underpins much of modern IP communications, particularly for those vendors with ambitious unified communications plans. Google has utilized the open XMPP protocol for its Google Talk service. Cisco has also invested heavily in XMPP with its Jabber acquisition.

While these open technologies have proliferated and even penetrated the enterprise market, few have offered the flexibility, interoperability, real-time and open source that Google Wave promises. XMPP is an IM protocol with some extensions, and SIP is a voice protocol with some extensions. Google Wave lacks a clear central application; instead, it enables or transforms any number of existing communication methods.

Some developers are looking into more interactive website comments while others see Google Wave as a way to boost the efficiency of document collaboration or to run and archive Web conferences more effectively, according to Nolle.

"[Google] obviously see[s] this as an architecture that is going to be enhanced and extended by developers," he said. And whether consciously or not, Google has been quietly training those developers for the platform for years. "If you look at the tools that go into Google Wave, those tools are the same thing that Google uses for Google Apps engine, for Google's Widgets, for Open Social."

Nolle, who is actively developing with the newly unveiled platform, has already seen the developer forums alive with talk about building a Google Wave clone of Cisco WebEx or another conferencing tool, hosted on Google's servers with a minimal amount of fuss or cost.

Service providers and unified communications vendors have been discussing this kind of vision for years, but Nolle said that Google has a nimbleness that those other companies lack, even when they are able to recognize the same problems.

He gave as an example work he had done with the TM Forum for years to bring this sort of standard capability to telecommunications.

But instead of substantial results, Nolle said, the service providers and telecommunications vendors spent time "arguing about how many angels are dancing on the head of a pin." It would take months simply to decide who would be on any given committee.

Google, on the other hand, has developed a framework and is willing to accept that its first release will probably undergo revision once community feedback is gathered.

"The operators really have recognized a problem but have failed to resolve the problem they have brought up," Nolle said. "[Meanwhile, Google] can get enthusiastic people to do most of the work."

Those "enthusiastic people" are the legions of Google developers the search giant has nurtured for years.

"Over-the-top players like Google have done a masterful job of supporting the developer process, and I think that's another thing that's going to help Wave," Nolle said. "I think it's a threat to both [UC vendors and service providers]."

Google Wave could teach more traditional vendors a thing or two about hosted unified communications, and it might find at least one ready student in Cisco. Cisco has recognized the trend toward more flexible, hosted communications services, according to Zeus Kerravala, a senior vice president at Yankee Group.

"If you believe UC is a software-driven industry, and if you believe software is moving to SaaS, UC is moving to SaaS," Kerravala said. "If I were Cisco, I would really try to push the concept of cloud-based UC. I think that's the next big driver of this market."

He said the company has taken strides in this direction with the success of WebEx, the hosted Web conferencing business that Cisco acquired in 2007.

Since the acquisition, Cisco has been hard at work to make WebEx a more cloud-friendly hosted unified communications option, opening up the service's APIs to embed specialized corporate applications into a suite that already includes conferencing, instant messaging, and document collaboration tools.

This hosted model, which often de-emphasizes voice in favor of rich Web-based "anywhere, any mode" communication, is more attuned to the next generation of workers, according to Kerravala.

"Let's look a generation ahead to see what the market is going to be. This generation isn't full of phone- and email-driven people," he said. "It's a younger generation that uses social networking and text and has a very quick response."

Kerravala is enthusiastic about Google Wave's potential, but he said it might have trouble penetrating an enterprise market that prefers to have more control over communications and collaboration technology, leaving Cisco an opportunity to seize or reinforce some market share.

"Really large enterprises like a lot of control and to have the servers hosted internally," he said. "And Google will have to address that or just be happy with SMBs."

Already, Google has had trouble winning enterprises over to Google Docs, despite some traction in the SMB market. Analysts predict that is unlikely to change before 2012, with Google being nothing more than a supplement to Microsoft Office in most enterprises.

But even if Google and Cisco split the market, major landscape changes are afoot.

"It's a logical conclusion to see that UC is being driven to SaaS," Kerravala said. "I think over the next 12 months you'll start to see more and more use of SaaS-based UC."

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