My Big Word for UC 2014: Bifurcation
For me, the best time of year to put our collective heads together at UCStrategies is now. Our last two podcasts have reviewed 2013 and previewed 2014, and if you give these a listen, you'll take in a wide range of perspectives from some pretty plugged in people.
Our consultants are especially connected, since they work directly with people like our readers - IT decision makers and channels. We analysts have a more vendor-centric view, but together, we've been talking about a lot of things that will matter to anyone trying to make a go of things now in the UC space.
What does bifurcation have to with UC?
I'm going to expand a bit here on a theme I talked about on our podcast for 2014, and it's one that a few other UCStrategies Experts have touched on, but not quite this way. In a nutshell, the big story I'd like you to give some heed to is bifurcation. As you likely know, this means splitting in two, where a single entity breaks up, and two divergent paths emerge. By the way, this does not rule out the possibility of these paths reverting to form in the future, and I'll get to that shortly.
While it's easy to dispute whether the UC market is - or ever was - a "single entity", let's not split hairs. We all basically know UC when we see it, and there's enough out there from the vendors that comfortably falls into that category. Based on what I'm seeing, 2014 will mark an inflection point between VoIP and UC, where two distinct types of customers emerge, each with a clearly defined solution.
Some of this may be obvious, and it's easy to view VoIP as a subset of UC, but there's still a pretty large market that's only interested in the former. This holds largely for micro SMBs and SOHOs - not really our core readership - whereby legacy telephony is still entrenched. For businesses that see the bigger picture possibilities beyond POTS, UC will be appealing, making this a more ambitious transition. That appeal will become real in cases where the business is prepared to invest more aggressively in IT and accept some disruption in getting UC to work as advertised.
On another level, management may simply will the business to adopt UC, mainly because they see it as a competitive differentiator, as well as being a catalyst to drive employee productivity. These are certainly common reasons for enterprises, but SMBs don't as readily think along these lines. Furthermore, you don't get these types of outcomes just from using VoIP.
How VoIP is different from UC&C
For everyone else, however, VoIP is just lower cost telephony. This is a very different mindset; one that is cost-driven and views technologies like VoIP as expenditures, not strategic investments. In terms of outlook, this is one form of bifurcation I see becoming more established in 2014.
VoIP buyers tend to be budget conscious and telephony-centric. Replicating TDM is the objective, and in most cases, this means going from a PBX to an IP PBX. In more adventurous cases, the business may shift from premise-based TDM to hosted VoIP. There's nothing really new here for those who follow this space, but the fact is that many businesses only want this. There are plenty of partners happy to serve them, both telephony vendors and hosted VoIP operators.
To be fair, many of these businesses may well have considered UC but took a pass after taking stock of what this truly entails. In some cases, they're just being realistic about what IT can support, and may recognize that many interoperability challenges await, making this a pretty risky move. Of course, you can't overlook basic skepticism about what UC promises to deliver, and compared to VoIP's tangible ROI, the returns may be too soft to support the business case.
What the market sees in UC&C for 2014
Conversely, I see another end of the market focused entirely on the collaborative aspects of UC, and this speaks to the forward-looking analysis that drives most of the activity on this portal. While there is no shortage of vendors who only talk about VoIP, the major players pitching UC&C hardly ever discuss VoIP or IP PBXs these days. These vendors have moved on from being telephony-centric, and their world is built around screens, not phones. For them, voice is just one application running on a multimedia platform, and the desk phone is just one way of doing telephony. As such, focusing on telephony will not be a path to success with UC.
This fundamental shift means that video is taking on a bigger role, and as the cloud matures, this goes well beyond telepresence. WebRTC is going to make video even easier to adopt, as will LTE for mobile devices. Both of these enabling technologies are poised to make big strides in 2014, and along with that, UC should be a prime beneficiary.
To support these diverging trends, I see another layer of bifurcation shaping up among the vendors. Those with a strong telephony focus and/or pedigree - such as ShoreTel, Mitel/Aastra, snom, Toshiba, Grandstream, etc. - will do well with VoIP, and to varying degrees will have some success with UC. The Tier 1 vendors, however - Cisco, Microsoft, Avaya, Unify, etc. - will become entirely focused on UC&C, and even where the telephony franchise is strong, it will be to drive the former. These vendors are not in the VoIP business, and increasingly, their cloud offerings and focus on collaboration will be the center of attention.
In short, then, I see a clearer bifurcation shaping up in 2014 along three related lines:
1. Customers are buying either VoIP or UC&C
2. Deployment models will remain premise-based for telephony or cloud-based for UC&C
3. Vendors will have success selling VoIP or UC&C in line with what their customers demand
The UC market didn't start out this way, and channels had a variety of options to sell whatever customers wanted. Now, however, the lines seem more hardened between VoIP and UC&C. For one end of the market, it's enough to just migrate to VoIP, and vendors won't get far trying to up sell them to UC&C. More tech-savvy businesses, however, will see VoIP as old news, and recognize how UC&C delivers a far richer user experience with transformative capabilities never seen before. In these cases, collaboration is what sells - even if seen as a magic bullet that may or may not materialize.
If there's a single takeaway here, I'd say that vendors shouldn't try to play both sides of the fence in 2014. VoIP is relatively easy to do, and there's still a good business there if you can find enough buyers ready to move on from TDM.
UC&C, however, is a moving target, with exciting innovations coming in 2014, especially for video-based applications. This means that vendors need to be seriously invested in UC&C to stay competitive - the pace of change is too fast if you're splitting time here along with trying to win legacy users over to VoIP.