Enterprise Connect 2018 – Trends and Observations

18 Mar 2018

Enterprise Connect 2018 happened last week, and, as always, there were interesting trends and new topics that emerged as important for organizations to consider in their strategy and vendor choices. These topics and disruptions show how the industry is changing. First though, while hot new technologies dominated the headlines, the reality is that organizations have to deal with the reality of their requirements and their current implementations. Brent Kelly and I did the Cisco/Microsoft comparison session (as we have for the last five years). Again, it was over attended with over 400 people in the room and another 300 outside (the EC folks set up a display and audio for those not able to get into the room). Clearly the decision between a future with Cisco or Microsoft for an organization’s Business Communications solution is still a major consideration for many companies. What was interesting was how people reacted to a concept that organizations have users and endpoints with different requirements. On average, only about 34% of North American endpoints today require personal collaboration capabilities. While we indicated this may change with team workspaces, it is an important point for organization making choices today.

There were two big “new” solution topics at this year’s event, team workspaces and artificial intelligence. While both have been discussed in the past, this year they became the dominant topics in keynotes, announcements and demos.

Team Workspaces were a major focus for most of the big players. Microsoft focused on Teams and their migration from Skype for Business to Teams. The keynote address by Microsoft and the capabilities they showed drew rave reviews from virtually everyone I talked to. Cisco also had a major team focus in Spark and also a great keynote. But there are other team workspace options. Facebook showed their Facebook for Work that has a decidedly teams/social focus (no surprise there) and referenced several large customers.  Of course, Slack was there as was Unify with Circuit. Finally, IBM is re-entering the communications/collaboration market with Watson Workspace, a team-oriented platform that has a range of options from free, to including Zoom-based meeting.

One clear thread in the team workspace arena is the potential for team workspaces to become the platform for a range of next-generation business process enablement. Repeatedly in discussions with vendors across the spectrum, the capability to use SDKs and integrations to create solutions that enable teams to manage business processes came up. There were two clear messages, first, the vendors see that team workspaces can become platforms, that have much higher value than products. Second, while integrations are somewhat similar between the vendors, the development SDKs are where the next generation of solutions may be evaluated. Companies like IBM and Microsoft may have a leg up in this transition.

Artificial Intelligence, or as I prefer to call it, Adaptive Intelligence, was another topic that seemed to be everywhere. From the IBM Watson Workspaces, to most of the UC/UCaaS vendors, virtually every Contact Center vendor, management platforms – virtually everybody was discussing their approach to AI. The reality is that this technology is very early days, and there are major differences between companies like Microsoft, IBM and Amazon that are building general AI platforms and the range of communications and collaborations companies that are using platforms or their own internal capacities. I am certain that by this time in 2019 we will see some major breakthroughs in this arena. The one thing I did not see was anyone discussing using AI to manage availability. While there is still some discussion of presence, the concept of using AI and input about presence, context and preferences to manage availability did not come up. The general trend seems to depend on the messaging and notifications in team workspaces to manage how people contact each other.

One topic that was not very visible this year was Virtual or augmented reality. It seems that VR is a challenge in the Business Communications space, and AR is not quite ready for prime time. The concept of wearing a pair of VR goggles during the work day seems challenging, and the value for remote users is still limited by the solutions. While AR is making great progress in specific markets as augmentation to tasks, a general utilization model is still emerging. While this was true today, with the huge focus on both in the consumer space, I fully expect to see this re-emerge in the future.

While it is not a new area, 2018 saw an explosion of new Contact Center solutions. This came in the form of many new Contact Center vendors, as well as new vendors in speech recognition and analytics as well as WFO. There seem to be two factors driving this trend. First, the financial community views Contact Center as a Growmark, while UC is seen as being in decline. It appears that investment is much easier to get for Contact Center. The second is that cloud delivery and modern programming is dramatically reducing the barrier for development. The abstraction of the Contact Center capability from the underlying voice platform is enabling new entrants like Twilio with their Flex platform. This change is accelerated as there were multiple new companies building a solution on top of the Amazon Connect platform. Also, there were cloud players like NewVoiceMedia, at Enterprise Connect for the first time. The result is that there is now a multiplicity of Contact Center solutions available. This market is further complicated by the potential of team workspaces as a mechanism to provide a custom interaction process. This plethora of companies, combined with the team factor and the increase in web site interactions replacing human interaction, should make this a hot market with lots of M&A and other issues.

Finally, there were some breakthrough products and solutions that opened new areas and were differentiated from others on the floor. Last year I identified Neretva and their beam shaping “soundbar” for conference rooms as a breakthrough. This year they added a method to enable two units to work together in room, effectively enabling large spaces to have uniform microphone coverage. I think they are really onto something in technologies that enable open microphones in areas. This year, the most interesting endpoint was the Hello2 from Collaborate. The Hello2 is a huddle room camera/microphone that has a 4-mic beam array with a 4K camera. What makes it interesting is that it has a price point of $499, which combined with a monitor, enables huddle rooms for sub-$2,000. For that price the Hello2 has a great range of technologies embedded and I expect it to have new capabilities over time. The company claims support for a range of video platforms (SfB, Zoom, etc.). This is an area to watch, as this is a complete endpoint with all the codecs, signaling, and other functionality that is price competitive with offers of USB-connected huddle rooms that require use of an employee PC to operate. The ability to equip a huddle room or SMB conference room for under $2,000 (or even $1,500 with a Costco monitor) makes the decision to equip a relative low use room much easier than the $5-10K of many of today’s solutions.

Another breakthrough is coming from Crestron. While Crestron started as a room automation company, there are embracing the room with communications and video. Their solution combines an in-room video/audio unit with the room automation and a management/scheduling system. While the Crestron solutions are not approaching the price points of the Hello2, Crestron includes configuration automation, scheduling integrations, management, etc. The Crestron conference room solution will be very attractive to organizations where the operational challenges are even greater than installations costs.

Finally, IBM is back in the communications/collaboration game with the Watson Workspace. While most of the other team workspace platforms have focused on a range of traditional cloud apps (salesforce, box, etc.), IBM has a lead in integration with SAP and their range of vertical business capabilities. With IBM’s leadership in business process management, I think there is a high potential that IBM may lead the way in using team workspaces to manage a business process. I think this will be an area to watch as well. In talking with the Watson Workspace team, they indicated there will be a major marketing push around this. With the larger power of IBM in the marketplace, this could accelerate the whole topic of communications/collaboration as a business process enabler and differentiator.

Overall, the market is undergoing dramatic and disruptive change. It is hard to imagine that just a few years ago we were talking about the potential of cloud, and now virtually all of the offers that were discussed were being delivered from the cloud. While the PBX and even UC have become less exciting (but still critically important), team workspaces, business process integration, AI, and Contact Center are driving a resurgence in our industry that will explode next year and deliver some incredible innovation.



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