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Unified communications is changing from stand-alone applications to services that can be embedded into any application or integrated into any business process. This concept isn't new.
The term communications-enabled business processes (CEBP) has existed for almost as long as UC itself. CEBP defined a means of using APIs to integrate UC technologies into business workflows to improve operational efficiencies. Nearly all UC vendors offer APIs, but up until recently they were limited in functionality and not widely used.
As of today, few companies are using APIs to meld UC and business process applications. According to the Nemertes 2015-16 Unified Communications and Collaboration Benchmark, just 25.4% of participating companies -- mostly large, multinational businesses -- embed UC into other business apps. Another 29.3% are evaluating doing so. Just 9.7% are building custom UC apps leveraging existing development platforms and APIs.
Those companies using APIs cite use cases like enabling click-to-call within business apps, dips into databases to support screen pops for incoming calls outside the contact center, and custom call routing based on business events or processes.
A focus on workflows and application integration
Perhaps the biggest hindrance to CEBP adoption was the nature of UC deployments.
Companies focused their UC adoption efforts on replacing legacy infrastructure, not on application integration. And, in most organizations, UC is the domain of the network and telecom teams, who have little interaction with application and development groups within IT or inside business units.
Thus, integrating communications, business processes and workflow is constrained by a lack of awareness of the capabilities. Now, in 2016, CEBP has returned under a new name: workflows.
In recent months, vendors such as Avaya, Cisco, Mitel, Unify and Vertical Communications are looking to differentiate from each other, as well as from Microsoft, by delivering APIs that let customers embed UC into business processes. They are joined by emerging, cloud-based competitors like Twilio and TokBox who are delivering APIs as a service via the cloud.
Meanwhile, UC buyers are increasingly adopting a software-centric view, spurred on by the adoption of Agile methodologies and the need to increase agility to improve competiveness.
Vendors using APIs to integrate communications, broaden capabilities
So, how do these new efforts differ from CEBP? The answer comes primarily in two forms: ease of access and broadening of capabilities.
API platforms like Tropo, acquired last year by Cisco, and Avaya's Engagement Development Platform provide ready-made components that application developers can use to bridge UC and business process applications via visual interfaces that minimize the need for coding expertise.
These efforts are likely to find a more receptive audience, as business customers increasingly view UC as a platform and not as an appliance that they buy for specific point solutions like telephony and video conferencing.
UC platform vendors are rapidly investing in building developer communities, as well as pushing their wares out to existing communities, to engage with a new audience to demonstrate the potential of integrating communications and business processes.
Slack recently set up an $80 million venture fund to drive application development around its team messaging collaboration platform. Cisco is using gamification to showcase API capabilities built into its Spark service.
Vendors like Vertical Communications are building an entire business strategy around packaged workflow applications, with embedded communications, to solve specific challenges or deliver new services. Others work through their channels or develop new partnerships with channels that already have software development expertise.
A growing opportunity to meld Internet-connected devices with communications platforms should drive further interest in using APIs going forward. As an example, a residential appliance may be able to call a service company to report an issue, thus triggering a call to the customer to schedule a repair visit.
UC owners should begin to evaluate the applicability of APIs to their own environments, looking for ways to leverage communications platforms to reduce business process barriers and improve operational efficiency in a measurable way.
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