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Facebook, Google Encroach On Enterprise UC

Facebook and Google are rolling out services that rival enterprise unified communications platforms. Vendors should beware.

Unified communications capabilities are converging with social networking platforms. Two social giants, Facebook and Google, are leading the charge. Facebook has been adding communications options almost since its launch--such as wall posts, in-platform messaging and IM--and myriad other ways of connecting. Earlier this month, the company added the ability to send audio messages as well as texts or pictures via its iOS and Android mobile apps.

I dictate most of my texts to Siri, which I have found to be remarkably accurate at transcription. I guess now we're just taking out the middleman (or disembodied female entity) and transporting the recorded voice. Some might say Facebook's offering is just voicemail, but I see it more like a slow-moving conversation in the vein of verbal IM. Further, voice messages can convey emphasis and emotion more easily that text, precluding the need for those stupid emoticons. : (

Facebook also began testing a VoIP service in its iOS app in Canada, and is extending that trial to the United States. When the service is deployed, you'll be able to launch a voice call right out of Facebook.

Most people don't think of Facebook as UC, but social networking is a form of communication, so why not "unify" all of the various modes on a single platform? This puts Facebook one step closer to being a full competitor to enterprise UC offerings such as those from Cisco, Microsoft, Avaya and the rest.

The counter to consumer-based UC is that enterprise offerings do other things that are important in business, such as multiparty video, desktop sharing and collaborative workspaces. That may be so, but it's no secret that the majority of new and interesting ideas are coming out of the consumer, rather than the enterprise, market.

Speaking of the enterprise, I was struck by the fact that Google has landed in the Challengers quadrant of Gartner's 2012 Magic Quadrant report on unified communications as a service (UCaaS). While Gartner places the usual suspects in the Leaders quadrant (8x8, ShoreTel Sky, West Communications and Thinking Phone Networks), I found it notable that Google was there at all.

The reason is that Google delivers enterprise-oriented UC elements through a variety of its services. Gmail is at the core of the offering, but Google Voice gives the search giant a way to tie in customers' voice communications with an over-the-top (OTT) offering that allows calls to be sent to any of the user's registered phone numbers; now you can also port your own number to Google Voice for $20. Of course there's Google Docs for document sharing (though being a creature of habit, I still prefer the more feature-rich Microsoft Office Suite), and Google+ Hangout offers multiparty videoconferencing.

The thing is that many of these consumer tools work more smoothly than their enterprise counterparts, particularly where mobile devices are concerned. We're getting a continuous stream of updates for both the Google and Facebook mobile apps, where the enterprise UC clients seem to get a facelift once a year.

IT departments can tell you one lesson they've learned from consumerization is that choice is king: If a user doesn't like a corporate-sanctioned application (or doesn't want to wait for one to be deployed), he or she can find an alternative on the Web and use it--with or without IT's blessing. Enterprise UC vendors now face the same situation. The stronger and more feature-rich these consumer platforms become, the more of a competitor they'll be to enterprise UC.

Michael Finneran is an independent consultant and industry analyst.

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