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At the dawn of the unified communications (UC) revolution, which began at the turn of this century but didn't hit its stride until several years later, UC vendors had one goal in mind: Own the desktop.
Indeed, developing UC applications and services was a way for telephony vendors -- such as Avaya, Cisco and Mitel -- to stay relevant in a world in which their hardware was becoming commoditized and possibly obsolete. This strategy also applied to email vendors, such as IBM Lotus and Microsoft, who urged customers to upgrade to the latest versions as updates to traditional features grew less valuable.
As they introduced and expanded their UC applications and, eventually, hosted services, these providers saw an opportunity to deliver more of their customers' communication requirements -- or, ideally, all of them.
Telephony providers moved to offer instant messaging (IM), conferencing and advanced collaboration tools, hoping to displace other UC vendors that had historically offered such capabilities. Similarly, IBM and Microsoft looked for ways to incorporate telephony capabilities into their email and IM platforms, and weave in their own audio, Web and video conferencing. The idea, from the start, was one-click access to a suite of communications tools, all delivered in a common interface from a single vendor.
But that ideal was before smartphones and tablets disrupted enterprise communications. The bring your own technology (BYOT) trend has infiltrated many organizations, and a slew of free and almost-free apps and services have claimed their place in the communications universe. These trends blur the line between technology that companies give their employees and technology employees use without permission from, or even the knowledge of, their employers.
Additionally, line-of-business managers and even end users have started weighing in on the kinds of technology they need to do their jobs effectively in an increasingly dispersed and mobile workplace. With more than half of all employees working outside a corporate office on a regular basis, the need for conferencing tools that enable rich, multimedia, multipoint communications -- in real time -- cannot be ignored.
Social media and the sharing economy cannot be ignored either, as they've upended the ways in which employees approach their jobs. Individuals are no longer working in silos, as Millennials and their savvy elders are embracing true collaboration as a way to drive productivity in the 21st century.
UC vendors ought to embrace middleware
These days, if telephony and desktop-productivity vendors want to be strategic partners in their customers' UC deployments, they must support a variety of desktop and mobile applications and services, not just their own. Certainly, they can and should offer branded, enterprise-ready clients that deliver key collaboration capabilities.
But UC vendors must also embrace a world in which users -- and often, IT managers -- rely on various consumer-grade apps and services that support chat, video, calling, social networking and other capabilities. That acknowledgement means selling middleware -- a term that should be familiar to IT but not, perhaps, to those tasked with purchasing and deploying telephony and email -- and using it to ensure their customers can run any clients they want on the front end, while delivering secure, integrated connectivity on the back end.
This strategy would require a significant shift in both product development and sales and marketing.
When you've spent your life creating user interfaces and the back-end technology to support them -- and only them in an optimized way -- it can be difficult to move to an open ecosystem that treats all clients and services the same, and makes integration, interoperability, external security and wide-ranging support the key tenets of development.
Likewise, salespeople and marketers who for years have focused on building brands may not know how to pitch prospects and customers on "anonymous" tools that enable UC, but which the end user and corporate executives will likely never see.
Still, companies that want to succeed in the enterprise communications market need to embrace such changes. That may not be easy to do, especially when your buyers -- IT and telephony managers, primarily -- are also reluctant to turn over the desktop to their end users. But the UC vendors that do so now rather than later could position themselves as the engines that drive UC in the years to come.
Melanie Turek is vice president of research at Frost & Sullivan.
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