While some, like Skype, are more communications-oriented, increasingly we are seeing communications capabilities of various types incorporated in the others. Probably the biggest development on that front is Facebook's voice IM capability and the VoIP service the company is now testing in the United States and Canada.
The mobile industry is embarking on the same course, and there are two elements you should have on your radar: Web Real Time Communications (WebRTC) and Rich Communications Services (RCS). The first, WebRTC, goes beyond mobile and describes an API definition being drafted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to enable browser-to-browser applications for voice or video communications without the use of plugins. With WebRTC, any browser-based application could embed the capability to set up a real-time communication session. I'm not quite sure where this will lead, but it will certainly open up whole new types of Web-enabled communication in general, and may mean that softphones become a thing of the past.
Meanwhile, RCS delivers capabilities more akin to UC. RCS is a joint effort of the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the organization that develops standards for the cellular industry, and the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA). The consumer-facing brand name for RCS is Joyn. Most of the RCS activity up to this point has been in Europe, though MetroPCS plans to roll out Joyn on its network using Android devices and an application on Google's Play storefront this summer.
[ Join us at Interop Las Vegas for access to 125+ IT sessions and 300+ exhibiting companies. Register today! ]
RCS will let advanced mobile communications services be deployed across operator networks. RCS is being driven in part by the higher-bandwidth capabilities that will come from LTE. Some of the RCS's promised capabilities include:
• Enhanced Phonebook, which will provide contacts' presence status. The "Joyn-enabled" mobile address book will combine all the ways users communicate, including voice, chat, file share and video share.
• Enhanced Messaging, which will increase the variety of messaging options, including chat, messaging history and file sharing.
• Enriched Call, which will provide multimedia content sharing during a voice call.
A lot of these services aren't new, but the way they are provided will be. For example, presence is available in Skype, but you have to open the Skype app to see it. As we noted above, Facebook is enhancing its chat options, but you have to open the Facebook app. Similarly, we have enhanced messaging in iMessenger and BlackBerry Messenger, but those communities are closed, and you can only get access to the full range of capabilities to contacts with like hardware. Nokia and Ericsson have been pushing a type of multimedia content sharing called "see what I see," but it has failed to catch on with operators.
With RCS, the mobile operators could begin to offer the types of "sticky" services that keep customers loyal; it could also allow them to break into the business of enterprise telephony. With the growing population of mobile workers and the increasing functionality of smartphones, many users are asking, "What do I need a PBX for?" Clearly there will still be a need for traditional enterprise telephony for desk-bound workers and for specialized applications like contact centers, but what about everyone else? It's getting harder and harder to justify the cost of hardware, licenses, cabling and maintenance to put a phone on a desk that no one is sitting at.
I have heard cellular carrier reps voice the "Who needs a PBX?" question, but it is often the case that they have been so steeped in the cellular business they really don't know why enterprises invest in PBXes (attendants, hold buttons, conference calling, contact center, inter-site networking, UC and so on). The idea of "wireless Centrex" has been around for decades, but it's no small undertaking to add the range of features that enterprise users would require to a mobile switching center.
RCS could shake up the enterprise UC landscape, but the mobile operators (and their primary equipment vendors) would have to spend money to understand the market and build the capabilities businesses require. If they did, mobile operators could become major competitors in the enterprise communications/UC market. Given the operators' singular focus on the consumer market, I bet RCS is more likely to result in a next-generation consumer UC offering. That said, there are numerous examples of consumer tech that have jumped across the enterprise boundary. Why should this be any different?