UC&C: All together now?

The brass ring of truly unified communications will always be elusive because there’s always something else to connect. Tim Kridel explores why—and where LinkedIn fits in.

Maybe a few years from now, we’ll look back at Microsoft’s purchase of LinkedIn as a milestone in the evolution of unified communications (UC). When the deal was announced in June, it seemed to be an odd fit, like eBay’s 2005 purchase of Skype.  

But the potential effect on pro AV is intriguing, even if a lot of AV pros didn’t immediately recognise the possibilities. 

“A number of UK resellers I spoke to at the time couldn’t understand the link between LinkedIn and Skype for Business,” says Pip Thomas, co-founder of Instrui, which trains organisations how to use various AV and IT technologies. “But if you play it out, there’s a really good reason.” 

With LinkedIn, Microsoft could provide Skype for Business users with information about other meeting attendees. Potential examples include mutual LinkedIn group memberships, or 10 mutual contacts or the fact that they worked for the same company way back when. 

Granted, most of that information is available for free by simply perusing LinkedIn. But having it automatically pop up at the beginning of a Skype session saves a lot of legwork. 

This scenario also would mark LinkedIn’s evolution from a professional networking and quasi customer relationship management (CRM) service into a communications platform. The evolution isn’t without precedent. For example, in the consumer space, Facebook added voice, video and other tools to transition away from the one-trick-pony of being a social network position into a multi-faceted communications platform. 

“A UC solution that only some of my [connections] use is not a UC solution.”
That’s just one possible scenario for LinkedIn, but it’s worth pondering for what it would mean for AV firms. For example, integrators traditionally have focused on UC’s AV aspects, such as designing conference rooms’ lighting and acoustics so participants look and sound good. That strategy has continued even as UC steadily moved downmarket, most recently into huddle rooms.

But LinkedIn is fundamentally different because it’s big data, something that AV firms traditionally haven’t tried to leverage into revenue and market-differentiation opportunities. So if Skype plays up features outside of AV’s wheelhouse, and users respond favourably, then integrators will have to adjust their approach to the UC market to remain relevant.

Time will tell whether LinkedIn shakes up the UC market. One reason to be sceptical is Microsoft’s spotty acquisition history. Case in point: Two years ago, it spent more than $9 billion (approximately €8 billion) to buy Nokia’s smartphone operations, yet it still remains a niche player in mobile. 
Magnifying glass over LinkedIn log in

Play well with others

AV vendors also will have to figure out how to counter or co-opt any competitive advantages that LinkedIn gives Skype for Business. Microsoft paid $26.2 billion for LinkedIn, which might sound like a lot. But consider that LinkedIn dominates the professional-networking market, with no close rivals that a competing AV vendor could buy to add comparable features to its UC platform.

“For vendors, it means you have to be the UC play or play nice with the UC play because at some point you’re going to be in or out,” says Ira Weinstein, Wainhouse Research senior analyst and partner. “The battle for eyeballs is what this is about.

“If I’m Microsoft, my goal is to gate and keep eyeballs. If I’m Slack, my battle is to get eyeballs away from other tools. A UC solution that only some of my [connections] use is not a UC solution.” 

Cisco Meeting Server shows how vendors can co-opt competitors. Announced in August, Meeting Server enables people in Cisco video rooms to connect with people who use Skype for Business. 

“It fixes problems created by certain vendors (I mean you, Microsoft) whose technology hasn’t always played well with others (like Cisco’s industry-leading video portfolio),” Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco’s Internet of Things (IoT) and Collaboration Technology Group, blogged.

“Five years ago, we were looking at hardware platforms. More and more, we’re looking at software environments because [they’re] more flexible.”
The more platforms a meeting solution can connect to, the easier it is to sell that platform, especially to enterprises that are frustrated by interoperability barriers. So it’s no surprise that Cisco’s press release had a customer quote making exactly that point.

“Our users didn’t understand why they couldn’t connect Skype for Business and our Cisco video rooms,” Andrew Heintz, Exelon manager of video engineering said in the release. “Now they don’t even think about it—a meeting is a meeting is a meeting. If they are in the office, they usually join from a Cisco video room. If they are working from home, they join that same meeting and get the same experience—but they join from Skype for Business.”

The UC market goes soft 

Using big data to provide informational context for sessions is just one way that the UC market is evolving. Like other types of AV applications, UC is also shifting away from hardware sales and heavily customised rooms toward software and hosted solutions. 

“There’s a lot of opportunity for integrators that are able to develop software applications on top,” Snorre Kjesbu, Cisco Collaboration vice president and general manager. “At Cisco, we’re exposing a lot of APIs from our codecs. You can start doing good integration that’s more software applications than room integration.”

In a sense, UC is evolving much the way telephony has: away from customer-owned, on-premise infrastructure such as PBXes and toward hosted solutions. 

“Five years ago, we were looking at hardware platforms,” says David Willie, head of communication and collaboration technologies at Saville Audio Visual, which built its hosted platform. “More and more, we’re looking at software environments because [they’re] more flexible.”

Other AV pros are seeing similar shifts elsewhere.

“It’s so evident that people are moving away from hard codecs and that it’s all about the soft codecs now,” says Sally Blank, Biamp Systems UC director. “People are searching for true USB solutions to outfit these meeting spaces, no matter the size: huddle rooms, boardrooms, classrooms.” 

But software-centric UC also can make it harder for integrators to differentiate and add value. 

“The integrator’s nightmare is when a tool has a little thing that says, ‘Click here to automatically integrate,’” Weinstein says. “All these tools are becoming simpler or self-service or friendlier with each other.” 

That flexibility enables integrators to offer additional services. One example is recording, archiving and indexing UC sessions, such as for enterprises that need those for e-discovery or simply for people who couldn’t attend in real time. To do that, integrators have to undergo a mindset change.

“You have to have your revenue expectations in line and treat it for what it is: a high-value add on to a core telephony and communications platform,” Weinstein says. “That’s not what AV is used to doing. AV likes to be the centre of the show.” 

But there’s another potential challenge: If UC archival services become popular, then vendors such as Microsoft could simply bundle those into their hosted offerings. That would muscle out some integrators. 

Room for UC

Cisco Meeting Server also is noteworthy as yet another example of why UC no longer is excluded from rooms. 

“UC extends to the room,” Weinstein says. “A lot of vendors and resellers want to separate the two. Years ago, Microsoft said UC was a software/desktop thing. With Surface Hub, they know the experience extends to the room. 

“UC can be an amazing opportunity for the AV world for the meeting room. The reason [is] users already know it. Connecting the room to the UC platform and making it a place to connect is incredibly valuable. The problem is, there’s not as much money in it.” 
“It’s so evident that people are moving away from hard codecs and that it’s all about the soft codecs now.” 
One reason is because installing, say, a Skype-ready device in a conference room doesn’t require as much expertise and time as more specialised, customisable platforms. But if Skype is what customers want—whether it’s because of the cost, or because employees and business partners are comfortable with it or some other reason—then it’s tough to talk them into something else that offers fatter margins.

“We’re seeing people finally understanding that UC is not a desktop thing, a room thing or a mobile thing,” Weinstein says. “UC is a person thing.”

UC’s mobile hub?

One challenge of being a person thing is that not everyone uses the same communications platform. Some prefer WhatsApp. Some prefer FaceTime or Facebook. Others prefer Skype. The list of options keeps getting longer, which makes it challenging for a UC platform to be all things to all people—or even a majority of them.

This diversity is a big part of the everyday drama of business communications. Bill Nattress, who was a principal at Shen Milsom & Wilke before joining Biamp Systems as director of channel strategy for paging last year, described a potential future alternative at InfoComm’s Future Trends session.

“Rather than the communication channel being chosen by the initiator—who needs to know the recipient’s phone number, email address or social profile—you’re just going to reach out to Bill Nattress and I, as the receiver, am going to choose how I wish to communicate with you at that instant time.”

When it comes to enabling that ideal scenario, the devil is in the details. One possible way is by leveraging the device that nearly everyone carries everywhere: a mobile phone. For example, a conference room could communicate with the mobile phone to configure the UC system so it meets that person’s preferences.  

“It needs to connect to the room so that room now has an identity that’s me, and I can start using the tools in that room,” Nattress tells InAVate. “That’s where AV’s opportunity is in all of this: understand how the Internet of Things, the network topologies, the network and personal security, such as two-factor authentication, [all enable this scenario]. These are tools that we can leverage to create that interconnection. We’re probably three to five years from that happening.”

Nattress’ colleague Blank recently met with several US integrators, and the feedback showed that mobile phones are evolving into a key UC component. 

“I had somebody say they don’t want a computer in the room,” Blank says. “They want to be able to go through their phone to have a video call. More and more, I’m hearing they don’t want anything on the table. They don’t want to have to touch anything or turn anything on. It just has to be invisible and magical.” 

To enable that vision, AV firms would have to add staff with mobile expertise, just as they’ve added IT skills to accommodate AV’s evolution into a set of IP network applications. Both require changes in mindset and market strategies, as Blank found while talking with a major, national integrator.  

“They said they’re so focused on custom design-build that when it comes to the smaller meeting spaces for soft codec conferencing, they almost don’t know what to do,” Blank says. “They run the risk of overcompensating and blowing the budget trying to make it like the larger room. But [clients] don’t need all the bells and whistles for ‘get in and get out’ meetings. So they’re trying to find that balance.” 

Article Categories