For about the last 30 years, enterprise communications has revolved around a set of distinct platforms, such as phones, email, video conferencing and, more recently, instant messaging and Web conferencing. Unified communications has brought these formerly disparate applications together.
But UC hasn't changed the very nature of communications apps that largely exist in their own silos, which require individuals to leave the apps they use to do their jobs if they want to communicate with peers, partners and customers.
Now, a new set of capabilities, known as communications platform as a service (CPaaS), offers a change in paradigm, affording software developers the ability to integrate communications capabilities directly into internal and customer-facing applications and workflows. But the idea of integrating communications and business applications isn't new.
Weaving communications into everyday business apps
Interfaces like telephony application program interface (TAPI) and other variants have long existed, largely to enable computers to control telephony functions. A broader concept, known as communications-enabled business processes (CEBP), has existed for years, defining the vision behind what developers can now easily accomplish thanks to broader availability of communications APIs.
Communications APIs provide application developers with an almost limitless capability to weave communications into their apps and workflow processes. For example, a developer can invoke a call that transmits an SMS text to notify a customer when an order is ready. With CPaaS, companies can receive inbound messages, such as touch-tones or SMS messages, to authenticate customers.
The back-end communications platforms providing these APIs can be cloud-based or on premises, and integrated with existing communications platforms.
API services abound in a busy market
As interest in APIs has grown, so too have the vendors offering API-based services. CPaaS vendors -- like TokBox, Twilio, Plivo and VoxImplant -- offer APIs as a service and bill customers based on the usage of features like SMS handling or voice calls.
Many UC vendors have started their own API platforms, such as Avaya's recently launched subsidiary Zang, Digium's Respoke, Genband's Kandy and Vidyo's VidyoWorks platform. Other vendors have acquired CPaaS providers, such as Cisco buying Tropo, ShoreTel purchasing Corvisa, and Vonage buying Nexmo. Others -- like Microsoft, Mitel, RingCentral and Vertical Communications -- have simply launched their own APIs.
Additionally, providers like Agora.io, Bandwidth.com and Flowroute are offering API platforms that interface with their back-end service provider capabilities, or providing features like optimized call routing over the public Internet.
Many providers are also offering support for WebRTC, enabling application developers to add voice, video or screen sharing to their websites and apps. In this case, developers route WebRTC sessions through a provider for security and performance management or gateway sessions to existing communications and customer engagement platforms.
IT leaders need to reap the benefits of APIs
For enterprises looking to take advantage of APIs to improve workflows, enable new services and capabilities, or even support digital transformation efforts, the first step is to educate developers on the capabilities that are available. At Nemertes Research, we find that few application developers within companies are fully aware of what's available via APIs from UC vendors and public CPaaS providers.
Along with education, IT leaders should look to establish relationships with CPaaS providers so individual developers or lines of business (LOB) are not deploying their own services. If these groups do deploy their own apps, IT could face management headaches and miss the chance to reduce costs via economies of scale. IT, as it is already doing with many cloud services, needs to become a services broker acting as a liaison between developers, LOBs and service providers.
Beyond educating developers, UC architects should become familiar with the emerging API economy, get up to speed on technologies like REST and WebRTC, and position themselves as facilitators of a digital transformation that can enable their organizations to recognize value from improving workflows and creating new service opportunities via APIs.
They should also look to embrace DevOps concepts that connect developers with operators to ease rollouts, increase agility and minimize pain points in service delivery.
APIs offer tremendous possibilities to finally allow companies to realize the vision of CEBP by bridging communications and business processes. Act aggressively to realize these benefits and opportunities within your own entity.
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