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This article is part of our Conference Coverage: Enterprise Connect 2018 conference coverage

New UC products highlight unified communications market trends

ZK Research focuses on eight UC products that emphasize strategic business value in light of unified communications market trends.

Enterprise Connect 2018 is now in the books as one of the more memorable shows in recent history. The show had a different vibe than in years past. Historically, the show was for communications professionals and almost all of the vendors that exhibited made phone systems, conference room endpoints or other related devices. This year, Slack, Facebook and Amazon all had keynotes, and exhibitors included companies like Dolby, Twilio and others that target their products more toward developers.

But consistent with the show from past years was that many of the vendors used the event to make announcements about UC products and partnerships that reflect changing unified communications market trends. Here are the ones I thought were the most notable and why they matter.

Avaya Mobile Experience. Although Avaya made a number of announcements about its unified communications products at Enterprise Connect, the one I thought was most notable was Mobile Experience that turns Avaya into a toll-free provider that can dramatically lower those costs and improve customer experience. Toll-free calling was put in place when long distance rates actually cost people money. Today mobile phones and most landline users don't pay a cent for long distance calls, so the toll-free 800 number providers are reaping up to 10 cents a minute when people dial numbers like 800-Flowers. Avaya intercepts calls coming in from mobile phones and sends them directly to the contact center and charge less than 1 cent per minute. The system is smart enough to understand where a user is located geographically to direct them to the right agent. For example, if someone moves from Boston to San Francisco but keeps their "617" area code number, when they call an 800 number, they will get routed to a Massachusetts call center agent if there are regional differences in service. Avaya's Mobile Experience knows the actual location and can take care of that problem.

Facebook showcases Workplace. For the first time ever at Enterprise Connect, Facebook had a keynote. The company used its 30-minute slot to show off its Workplace product and help the audience understand what exactly it is. Briefly, and think of Workplace as Slack with Facebook's front end. The idea is that people would live and work in the product all day and send messages, post documents, create groups, do videos and store files through the interface they use in their personal lives. I liked that Facebook didn't try reinvent the wheel for things that are already working. Its uses Blue Jeans for video and offers a wide range of file sharing options through Box, Google Drive and others. While the interface looks like Facebook, this isn't consumer Facebook. A worker needs an entirely different set of credentials to sign into Workplace, which can be imported from Active Directory, so security concerns should be minimal. What's not clear is who this product appeals to. Older workers tend to like established products from companies like Microsoft and Cisco and may not want to use Facebook at work. Younger workers like tools like Slack and never use Facebook. The product is interesting, but Facebook may have trouble gaining traction.

Fuze expands partnership with NICE and adds Five9 to its list of partners. The contact center market has been red hot lately – which is a major unified communications market trend. Every unified communications as a service (UCaaS) vendor has been looking to add contact center as a service (CCaaS) to their lineup of UC products. Some have chosen to build their own, but Fuze has taken a different approach by partnering with CCaaS market leaders, cloud-based call center software vendors NICE and Five9. As is often the case, one size never fits all, so the dual-pronged strategy enables Fuze to offer customers around the globe different options. Fuze customers can now look at the company as a one stop shop for all of its communications needs.

Huawei shows off its AI-powered meeting space. Huawei was another name new to Enterprise Connect this year, and the company had a massive booth with an artificial intelligence enabled meeting room. Using the meeting room, you walk into the room and through a remote, start talking to "Lisa," Huawei's virtual assistant. The phrase "Hey Lisa, start me meeting" turns the lights and AC on, powers the display and turns on the video systems. Users can have an instant meeting without the 15 minutes it typically takes to start a meeting. Lisa handles translation issues, shows names on the screen and handles any other issue that gets in the way of having a meeting. At the end of the meeting Lisa shows a transcript of the meeting that can be distributed to anyone there. It was a great showcase of what's possible when meetings and AI are come together.

Microsoft pivots everything to Teams. At Enterprise Connect last year, Microsoft took the covers off Teams, its team collaboration product, as something to run alongside Skype for Business. Since then, Microsoft has done a hard pivot and made Teams the centerpiece of its unified communications market strategy. New features to Teams include:

  • Cloud recording
  • In-line message translation
  • Background blur on video
  • Proximity detection for Teams meetings

At the event, Microsoft also showed off its graph that combines data from Microsoft Office365 (which includes Teams), Dynamics and LinkedIn and creates a visual depiction of a user's activity. Microsoft will apply machine learning to the graph to help workers be more productive.

If you're an organization with Skype for Business deployed on premises, you need to decide whether to stick with the on-premises deployment and live without Teams or move to Office365 to get the benefits of Teams. Microsoft said it has no plans to discontinue the on-premises version of Skype for Business,  but one customer at the show told me his Microsoft sales rep told him that the infrastructure requirements for the on-prem version will become prohibitively more expensive over time. He admitted he felt the sales rep was trying to strong-arm him into making the shift to Office365 and perhaps exaggerated the requirements. Regardless, companies with Skype for Business deployments have a tough to decision to make.

Polycom Trio updates. The Polycom conference room phone is the de facto standard speaker phone today. Last year the company announced Trio, the most significant upgrade to the phone to date turning the conference room phone into the smart phone of meeting rooms. Polycom announced a number of updates to the device including support for Microsoft Teams, integration with Amazon's Alexa, a partnership with Blue Jeans and the ability to be the control point of Zoom Rooms. The flexibility that Polycom is showing with Trio is good news to customers as they can deploy a Trio now and keep it in place as their meeting room technology evolves. I expect to see Polycom continue to drive innovation into Trio, as it should be the control point of the digital meeting space.

Twilio jumps into the contact center space. In what was certainly one of the more curious pieces of news, Twilio announced it was rolling out its own CCaaS product called Flex. Twilio has been in the contact center market for years as it provided the building blocks for companies like Seranova and Zendesk. Moving directly into the market is curious because Twilio will now be competing with many of its partners. Its value proposition is that it offers better scale than the traditional CCaaS vendors as it is built on a pure cloud native solution that can support a massive number of agents. This may have been true a few years ago, but I believe Five9 recently went through a massive upgrade of its own cloud to become cloud native. One of the interesting features of Twilio available to customize the implementation is called Studio. Like Amazon Connect, Twilio will likely have more appeal to developers than contact center managers.

Vonage unveils Business Cloud. UCaaS has seen strong adoption in small businesses and large enterprises with the mid-market being underserved. Vonage retooled its Essentials offering with a new, cloud-native platform called Vonage Business Cloud geared to meet the broad demands of the mid-market. Complete details of this can be found in my post from last week

Several other vendors made unified communications market announcements in terms of their product rollouts or updates at the conference, but I found these the most interesting. The role of communications is changing because it used to be something that didn't get a second thought because it had no real strategic value. Communications is now being embedded into everything and can be used for competitive differentiation. Vonage CEO Alan Masarek summed it up best on a panel I moderated when he said, "Communications is core to digital transformation". I agree with that 100%, and I'm looking forward to Enterprise Connect 2019.

This was last published in March 2018

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