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Universal Communications Solutions Poised to Transform Enterprise Collaboration

October 05, 2015

Today’s business environment is fragmented when it comes to communications solutions, largely because of a generation gap. Baby boomers are beginning to retire and are being replaced by millennials, many of whom have never known a world without cellphones and internet access. All of this has led to a fragmented climate for implementing unified and universal communications (UC), yet adoption is inevitable.

“These new workers have grown up to expect Universal Communications, the ability to communicate with anyone at any time on any device,” said John M. Hand, global Microsoft Alliance Director at IR. IR specializes in performance management software for IT infrastructure, payment and communications ecosystems. “And not just talk, but to share video and collaborate in real time.  As the workforce moves from the pre-millennial majority to the millennial majority, Universal Communications will not only be expected, but will be the new normal.”

IR is participating at ITEXPO Anaheim this week as both an exhibitor and presenter. The company will take part in a panel session on Skype for Business today at 4 p.m. PT along with Nectar Services Corp. and Sonus Networks. The session will cover the process of managing a Skype for Business solution from end to end and will cover how IR’s management solution works with Skype. IR will also be conducting a theater presentation on Thursday at 12 p.m. PT on the road to enterprise voice using Skype for Business.

We had an opportunity to conduct a question and answer session with Hand about the state of the UC market and how it is being adopted by the enterprise along with cloud computing, WebRTC and other disruptive technologies.

How do you feel collaboration software/services are helping workers today?

The ability to collaborate online is a tremendous benefit. Many jobs are not even possible without it. It has opened up opportunities for people to work from home or remotely. There is no such thing as a “snow day” anymore, because if you can’t make it to your office, you can just logon from home. My company’s headquarters are in Australia; I’ve never even been there. Our US headquarters is in Denver, but I live in the Seattle area because my client is Microsoft.  Without the ability to collaborate online, I would not be able to work for IR. We use Skype for Business as our main mode of communication. I haven’t had a desk phone in years. Online collaboration is the only way I can do my job. 

Has corporate awareness of security threats increased over the past year? Have security practices been adjusted as a result?

Acurity threats are certainly real, and given the increase in cybercrime, there is a heightened awareness of them. Institutions that handle large amounts of financial data are the prime targets: credit card companies and large retail stores like Target are perfect examples. But companies that are not moving or storing large amounts of financial records are less likely targets. While they still need to be diligent about how they protect their (and their employee’s) privacy, they are far less likely to be targeted. While attention to security and privacy rights has gained focus in the past year, and rightfully so, you need to temper paranoia with a dose of reality. Be diligent, but be practical as well.

If your mobile device had integrated software that allowed you to separate your business and personal apps, would you use it? Why or why not?

Yes, absolutely, if for no other reason than to compartmentalize my work life from my off-hours life. It would be very convenient to have a work mode where all of my work-related applications and documents were readily available, and with the click of a button hide them all, and give me access to my personal applications like news, sports and games. The ability for an employer to remotely monitor (or erase) business information, while preserving personal data, is one of the exciting new frontiers in enterprise mobile device management.

How is cloud computing shaking up your product/service offerings?

John M. Hand, global Microsoft Alliance Director, IR

Cloud computing is a great evolution of technology; it will allow many companies to offload their IT workload. However, it has been our experience that not everyone is willing or ready to embrace a complete cloud computing environment, or face complex regulatory requirements that sometimes limit the suitability of cloud solutions. In most cases, though, it goes back to the adoption curve; right now companies are either not in the cloud, or testing some workloads in the cloud, which leads to hybrid scenarios. While cloud computing will most likely be the way of the future for many companies, we expect a three-tiered approach, which includes on-premises, hybrid and of course cloud. IR’s Prognosis [solution] can service each of those scenarios today, with a strong emphasis on the cloud; as more companies move to Office 365 for enterprise voice, for instance, they will need a solution that can help them troubleshoot issues as they arise.  And when they do, we are ready to help them across all three scenarios.

Are channel partners keeping up with the latest products and services or is more training required?

Not all channel partners are created equally.  There are some that are very progressive with addressing the needs of UC; those companies are the ones that train their employees on the latest technologies and proactively approach their existing and new clients with the latest offerings. Those are the partners that are making the most of the current market offerings, and having the most success.  However, each new technology requires companies to update their skills, as well as their planning, or they risk being left behind. The technically savvy companies are continually updating their skills with the latest training offers.

Samsung Mobile is making a direct move into the enterprise market with its latest line of corporate-centric devices. Can Samsung successfully take the corporate market share that once belonged to BlackBerry or will the enterprise mobile market remain entirely fragmented?

The technology industry is not for the faint of heart; companies that were once market leaders can quickly lose their edge if they do not continually innovate and pay attention to the evolving needs of their market. BlackBerry is a perfect example; it wasn’t that long ago when a BlackBerry was a “must have” device and today is it a footnote in the long list of technologies that have dominated, but now are nowhere to be found. Samsung is smart to create devices that meet the current needs of the corporate market, but to succeed, they need to reach a critical mass and establish themselves as a “must have” device. They need to differentiate themselves in a way that they can offer a service or device that is not available anywhere else. I don’t think that they are there yet. And in today’s marketplace, where there are an ever expanding number of companies vying for the attention of corporate buyers, it will take something truly unique to stand out from the crowd. I’m not sure if any single company can get there. But if they do find a way to climb to the top of the heap, they better keep an eye on what their customers want and need, because the only way to go from there is down.

What, if any, wearable tech products do you use? How do they make you more productive?

I don’t have any wearable tech products that I would consider productivity related. I have a Fitbit, two in fact, but I find them only moderately effective and after the novelty of using them has worn off, so has my desire to use them. I have colleagues that have smart watches, but for the most part they are just a convenient external UI for their smartphones.

Will wearable tech become a major enterprise technology? What will drive or hinder adoption?

I think that wearable technology has the potential to be an integral part of remote communications. My son has an Oculus Rift, and using that is a pretty immersive experience. I see technologies like Google Glass and Microsoft’s HoloLens enabling scenarios where groups of geographically dispersed people can collaborate in new ways that allow the wearers to see a virtual group environment. I could be sitting at a conference table or in a classroom, or even a machine shop, where using your hand gestures or haptic gloves would enable a user to physically interact with the environment. I’m bad with names but great with faces; my most used application would be a pair of HoloLens enabled glasses with a forward facing camera and facial recognition software so when an acquaintance approached I would see a name appear in a “bubble” above their head, and then I could greet them by name. I just finished readings a great book called Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, set 30 years in the future, that really illustrates the full potential of wearable technology. It is slated to be made into a film directed by Steven Spielberg. If you are at all interested on how wearable technology may be used in the future, I would highly recommend reading the book.

WebRTC went through a very significant hype cycle. Will its use cases and adoption live up to that hype?

WebRTC was launched back in 2011 with the goal of providing an open framework for Real Time Communications through the browser.  It has plenty of potential for some use cases, but still hasn’t captured much of the marketplace, and is more of an alternative solution rather than a revolutionary one. The ongoing standards battle is still a major red flag to serious adoption for WebRTC as a core dependency for investments and strategies around mission critical service infrastructure.

There’s also the privacy/security issues raised by broadly enabling browser-based access to camera and microphone (and location!) functions. Without the trusted registrar/directory, granting any and every web page access to your mic/cam is asking a lot.

The potential for private, small scale peer-to-peer mesh conferences (four or five users max before the bandwidth becomes crazy) with some self-published web service acting as the integration point, that seems too much trouble for most users, and there are a ton of free services with better manageability and discovery already available. Enterprise needs, specifically around management and archiving and auditing, require extensive outside infrastructure. Today at least, WebRTC doesn’t provide any of that, and the market for services and products to perform those functions is still immature.

It has had moderate success in the business to consumer space: Amazon Kindle HDX Mayday, American Express for iPad and Google Helpouts, for instance. These all allow consumers to interact with customer service or support via clicking on a link in a web page. Google Chromecast uses WebRTC for video streaming. But the simple fact that you don’t need a plugin, on some browsers, on some OSs, isn’t particularly revolutionary. The level of friction is small, and mostly alleviated only in tightly controlled devices like the Kindle.

In addition, the current generation of WebRTC standard is limited in scope (no standard file transfer, desktop control, selective screen/app sharing, etc.), not implemented fully or consistently between browsers (even among the Webkit world of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc.), and that doesn’t seem likely to change in the next few years.

If it does reach critical mass and widespread adoption, it will likely become a juicy target for hackers to create malware attacks with the potential to introduce a new cross platform attack vector, with billions of vulnerable endpoints, an immature security model and strong incentives for customers (businesses) to bypass standard defense in depth layers in the name of getting it working, but without the long experience of a Microsoft, Cisco, Avaya, etc., around the inevitable tradeoffs for enterprise functionality and security. And that’s not counting the potential for purely client side exploits.

It certainly has potential, but the support from major vendors is still fractured, and it will be a while before there is an industrial strength security and support model, which will be required before it can live up to the hype.

What technology has had the greatest impact on your ability to perform your job in the past year?

Skype for Business for me has had the greatest impact. I literally could not do my job without it. I take advantage of all of its features. I connect with work, partners, Microsoft colleagues and friends and family. I have given presentations, conducted conference calls, collaborated on documents and had simple peer-to-peer calls, IM and video chats. My office goes with me, allowing me this summer to take my daughter to dance class, and still work from a local café, without missing a single meeting or deliverable. As a remote worker, my job depends on it.

What technology has had the greatest impact on your personal life in the past year? 

Again I would have to say Skype for Business and Skype consumer, I travel frequently and when I do I can stay in touch with my family. While on a trip to Chicago I was using Skype to talk with my daughter, who was having difficulty with her history research paper. So I shared screens with her and we collaborated on how to do research on labor conditions in 18th century England. We were online for two hours together, and when we finally said goodnight, her stress was relieved and her homework crisis was averted.

What innovations do you expect to see in the business communications world in the next year?

Cloud and hybrid services (many of which will nominally support WebRTC endpoints) will continue to grow rapidly. Interoperability between private (Skype for Business, Cisco Telepresence, etc.) and semi-private (O365, Skype, Facebook, Apple Facetime, Whatsapp, Twitter, etc.) systems will continue to be spotty, and third-party services and gateways (Bluejeans, SBCs, Broadcom, to name some quite disparate examples) will continue to refine and expand their capabilities to cover more services, functions and use cases.  The gateway and federation business will continue to be a robust and competitive space, without impacting the innovation inside the services.

The hybrid space will be the most interesting, as we see Microsoft’s productivity and platform solutions (PBX in the cloud, O365, Dynamics, Azure) and related services (Analytics, Big Data, translation) grow tremendously, and many SMB businesses move completely into the MS cloud space. Cisco (and to a lesser degree IBM, Oracle and SAP) will continue to offer Microsoft challenges in the enterprise productivity and platform spaces, while Google and Apple (and increasingly Samsung) will continue to invade and disrupt the enterprise IT service catalog with consumer and prosumer products. I keep hoping to see some interesting announcements resulting from IBM and Apple’s alliance and maybe some refinement and expansion of Google’s enterprise play.

Microsoft will continue to transform its business model, focusing on transitioning its perpetual/on-premise productivity customers into service customers with aggressive efforts to enable full parity between service features from Microsoft platform devices (Windows OS, Windows Phone, Xbox) and the world of Apple and Android powered devices.

In general, mobile form factor devices are right at the cusp of major changes in UX. Extreme change is coming, with fringe cases currently available, but mainstream acceptance of a NUI, Natural User Interface is rapidly approaching: Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard and Google Glass, the Microsoft HoloLens and increasingly powerful natural language speech interactions, like Siri and Cortana. These, in turn, will drive an acceleration of the already booming dependencies on cloud services and end users will have less and less reliance on fixed point devices like PCs (and even laptops or tablets).

These trends will continue to drive increased demands for bandwidth on mobile networks, but consumer services like Netflix streaming and bit torrent traffic will continue to dwarf communications in terms of raw bandwidth. In the global Internet, there will continue to be a tension between traffic shaping (enabling prioritized traffic for some services), and the bedrock principle of equal access across network interchanges (network neutrality). Service providers legitimately want to offer services and preserve bandwidth for services, but equally, the current robust pace of innovation that we’ve seen in the internet services market would never have been possible if the barrier to entry for services and products included having to pay for equal access to networks. Regardless of what compromises are eventually reached, UC systems that have grown up in a natively mobile and unmanaged network environment, and thus use multiple techniques to adapt to unmanaged networks (like Facetime, and Skype for Business/Skype) will continue to see their mobile usage and adoption outpace the systems that have grown out of more traditional telephony systems, with their legacy heritage of expectations of closed networks and connections across dedicated, managed networks.

There will be a bifurcation of remote meeting technologies with the advent of a new generation of mid-tier (but still large-scale) room-based devices, such as the SMART Room System for Skype for Business, the Microsoft Hub and smaller Cisco TelePresence endpoint, and simple low-cost solutions like mobile, tablet and laptop-based webcams. Even a Kinect-enabled Xbox and large screen TV can be used to facilitate remote meetings. We will continue to see innovation in form factors, continuing to blur the lines between computers, game/entertainment systems, productivity systems and home control systems.

What are you looking forward to at ITEXPO Anaheim?

Hearing from industry leaders about the innovation and focus on the future technologies and to identify areas where IR can provide support. And we are excited to share our latest release of Prognosis UC and show potential customers how we can help them with their deployment, consumption, adoption and customer satisfaction with their Skype for Business/Office 365 investments.

Edited by Kyle Piscioniere

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