ORLANDO, Fla. -- The big unified communications vendors shared the stage this week at Enterprise Connect, but don't expect them to share much else. Interoperability, inevitability, was a hot topic among the vendors at a UC summit, which included industry rock stars from Cisco, Microsoft, Google, Avaya, NEC, Unify and Mitel. In an industry called unified communications, the vendors don't seem that, well, unified. But perhaps some progress has been made.
Although all of the vendors stressed that the customer is king and ultimately the customer dictates a smooth user interface experience, interoperability, they said, is not necessarily the answer.
The panel discussion, called "UC summit: Reality check on progress toward UC," did have some palpable tension at times. Topics focused on UC adoption, ease of use, mobility and the fact that consumerization has greatly influenced business communications. Interoperability, though, is off the table, or at least a side dish in how these big vendors work or don't work with each other.
Adam Swidler, technology evangelist for Google for Work, said pointedly: "We are not going to have one interface. In fact what appears to be going on with mobile devices is a disintermediation of services." Facebook, for instance, split its Messenger app off the original one-app, multi-purpose approach.
"I think the users have spoken and what they want is very purpose-built, very simple and easy to use apps that they will choose and they'll bring in," said Swidler. Vendors are no longer choosing the platforms, he said, as users are calling the shots. "The change is upon us," said Swidler. "And so that one UI is probably a holy grail at this point."
Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco's Collaboration Technology Group, echoed Swidler's thoughts on disintermediation but in another capacity. "If the big companies don't figure out how to make these technologies work better together, we're going to be disintermediated by a whole crop of new companies that figure it out."
Quoting Cisco CTO Jonathan Rosenberg, Trollope said "virality is the new interoperability." Namely, it's easier now for users to download and acquire popular apps. So if two users have two different apps, it's easy nowadays for one of the users simply to download the other user's app and collaborate.
Trollope said there has been in fact more collaboration recently among the big vendors when perhaps historically there hasn't. He cited recent Cisco-Microsoft partnerships in particular and said as more technologies move and operate in the cloud he envisions more of the technologies working together in a more fundamental way.
Vendors caution against mutant forms of applications
Zig Serafin, corporate vice president at Microsoft, said: "We have to be careful as vendors not to sit here and say, 'We're going to define what that interface looks like.' Ultimately users decide what that experience needs to be.... You need to be cautious so you don't end up with these mutant forms of applications that make vendors happy, but don't make sense for the end user."
A one-size-fits-all common denominator just isn't going to happen, said Jeff Bridge vice president of solution engineering and development at Unify. The market is saturated with UC tools, he said, and there's frustration among end users with all the tools they deal with on a daily basis.
"It's information overload," said Bridge. "I'm not sure we'll ever get to a single user interface; but the goal is to design a user interface that improves productivity and the end users want to use."
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