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HBO's Silicon Valley demos five UC pain points in three minutes

Of the growing number of shows starring geeks (Big Bang Theory, The IT Crowd, Halt and Catch Fire) none epitomize the pain points of unified communications (UC) as profoundly as the recent TeleHuman sketch from HBO’s Silicon Valley.

HBO Silicon Valley TeleHuman

If you haven’t watched Mike Judge’s new show yet, it’s a satire of Silicon Valley’s high-tech glamour. And while it portrays IT companies at work, its sexual humor and irreverent language make it decidedly unsuitable to watch at work. With that disclaimer, this hilarious clip between characters Big head and Hooli CIO Gavin Belson perfectly illustrates five UC pain points in three minutes.

Before I hash out each pain point, for those more interested in the show than the technology, I invite you to “tune out” the tech talk as figuratively or literally as you like (a la the electric guitarist lawyer in Episode 4).

Enter UC pain point No. 1—cost—where a translucent Belson materializes in a body-size tube, dubbed the TeleHuman, in front of Big Head.

In disbelief, Big Head exclaims “Wow! Cool, am I a TeleHuman over there, too?”

Belson scoffs, “What? No, of course not.”

For years, the cost of cutting edge telepresence technology, like holographic telepresence, has prohibited all but the rich and famous from using it. Big Head, like the vast majority, is one of the honored few to witness such exclusive technology. Despite a promising start to the telepresence industry, in 2014 more businesses are leaning toward cloud-based video conferencing than deploying full-fledged holograms—though a telepresence business case still stands for certain verticals, like medicine.

When the TeleHuman breaks down and distorts Belson, we’re taken to UC pain point No. 2: reliability. Nothing is more frustrating than spending boat loads of money on a product that isn’t working right. If UC tech were truly plug-and-play, we wouldn’t have IT engineers devoted to setting up and architecting a system smooth enough to handle the high demands of voice and video.

What’s UC pain point No. 3—you ask? Ease of use (or lack thereof). Belson illustrates this when he yells at tech support to troubleshoot a failed image projection:

Belson: Can you help me please?

Tech support: OK, I think what happened was when you set it up you forgot to –

Belson: I didn’t set it up. I paid one of you people to set it up.

The fact that tech support or white-glove services are still needed for some technologies is another barrier to video conferencing adoption.

For pain point No. 4, I’d like to point out the lack of unified UC solutions. When the TeleHuman breaks down, Big Head and the team are forced to break open a laptop and call Belson back using Hooli chat, which is subsequently downgraded to a cell phone conversation. That degradation doesn’t come from network-aware technology, however. Employees still need to go to a laptop, open an application and find the person to communicate with (or resort to their cell phones to find the appropriate contact). With true unified communications, the technology can move seamlessly between one communication mode to the next. While vendors are working their way toward unifying solutions—much of today’s UC technology exists in disparate environments that beg to be connected.

Which brings us to the last UC pain point: No. 5, the network. UC technology like video is only as good as the network it runs on. Arguably my favorite line from this Silicon Valley scene is the one in which a polite Gavin Belson appears on Hooli chat to say “The TeleHuman is a great piece of technology. Unfortunately, the broadband isn’t that great out here in rural Wyoming. That presents a great business opportunity.” This scene repeats almost verbatim a conversation I had with RingCentral’s VP of operations. He harped on needing broadband in order to move dynamically between modes of communication. As far as broadband accessibility, he said; “I think the U.S. is doing a lot to be there. If you live in a major city, you’re fine; but in rural areas, we’re still lagging behind.”

While UC technology has matured a great deal over the course of decades, the industry still has a ways to go. Scenes like Silicon Valley’s UC sketch are funny because we’ve all been there—we’ve all cursed at the Godforsaken technology that’s meant to make lives easier. But IT pros can be the heroes/heroines at the end of the day. While broadband availability and UC unification may not be in your hands, the network is. For more advice, Ovum Principal Analyst Mike Sapien offers his take on how to keep your UC deployment from failing.

Photo: Gavin Belson materializes in the TeleHuman

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