The UC market is adrift, as the percentage of respondents to our InformationWeek 2013 State of Unified Communications Survey reporting that they've deployed and are using such tools inched up a mere 2 points, to 38%, from our 2012 survey. And 31% of those shops have rolled out UC to less than 10% of users.
While an additional 30% say they plan to deploy UC within the next 24 months, that's essentially the same percentage as had UC on the drawing board the last time we asked. Don't make the mistake of thinking it's just a soft economy and tight IT budgets holding back UC initiatives. It's also that an increasing number of users are comparing enterprise UC tools to capable consumer-grade services such as Google+, Facebook and Apple Facetime, not to some 10-year-old PBX. Facebook, for example, is moving into voice over IP and voice IM, and if recent rumors prove true, Google will soon roll out a complete UC offering under the Babble brand. By integrating Gmail, Hangouts, Google+, Google Voice, Google Messenger and other offerings, with Jabber/XMPP as the common, open protocol, Google could offer a compelling set of services at a price point ... well, let's just say it's hard to compete with free.
A strong enterprise UC response to the consumer-grade threat is WebRTC (Web Real Time Communications, discussed more here), an emerging World Wide Web Consortium API designed to provide a unified way to directly embed voice and video into any standards-compliant browser. UC industry stalwarts such as Avaya, Cisco, Mitel, Siemens and, yes, Google are active in WebRTC. Microsoft is advancing a "similar but different" standard, perhaps looking to protect its Skype services. Apple has been pretty quiet on this front.
The potential for WebRTC to help standardize and integrate a market that's still fragmented and vendor-centric is huge, but there are numerous pitfalls. For example, Microsoft and Apple could try to torpedo it or just fragment the market further. But WebRTC bears close attention. Ask your UC vendors about their plans. As mobile app development is increasingly impacted by HTML5, browser-based UC across all classes of devices, enabled by WebRTC, becomes a tantalizing, disruptive possibility.
Still, expect the CFO to ask this blunt question: What can enterprise UC products give us that we don't already get for free from the likes of Google and Apple?
Your answer had better be a good one. Does enterprise UC provide enough verifiable improvements in efficiency, security and capability to justify the up-front and ongoing costs? And will any system we buy continue to exceed the capabilities of what Google may deliver?
Enterprise buyers demand a set of tools and services that unify the range of communication channels, from IM and presence to audio and videoconferencing, while integrating mobile devices in a way users find intuitive. In other words, they demand seamless communication on whatever device people have at hand, wherever they happen to be.
If there's a single measure of UC vendor success, it can be summed up in one word: simplicity. The days of employees enduring multi-hour training programs to learn how to use a phone or audio/videoconferencing system are fading fast, if they're not gone already.
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