I cannot tell you the first time I heard the term “unified communications,” but I do remember the first time I experienced something akin to it. It was back in my Northern Telecom days and I was working on a product that we called VISIT. I honestly can’t remember exactly what VISIT stood for (Visual Interactive something something Telephony – I think), but it was basically integrated voice and video.
At first, VISIT was a Macintosh program that could make point-to-point black and white video calls and control a Nortel digital telephone. As time went by, we added support for Windows, color, video conferencing, call logs, and a few more bells and whistles. Technically, it was unification from the standpoint of a single multimedia application, but it was a start and you have to begin somewhere.
Since then, lots of other vendors have thrown their hats into the UC ring. Over the years, I’ve played with IBM’s Sametime, Genband’s Experious, Avaya’s One-X line of products, and Microsoft’s NetMeeting, Live Communications Server (back in the day I was actually certified in LCS), Office Communication Server (OCS), and Lync. They took the car that the pioneers in UC created and drove it ten miles further. However, as the products evolved and changed, so did my thinking about what exactly unified communications is.
I remember a conversation I had with my youngest son a few years ago. The subject of email came up and he told me that he didn’t use it because he had Facebook. To me, a middle-aged man whose job revolved around email, that didn’t make sense. I pressed him further and he said, “With Facebook I get pictures and videos. I know what my friend is doing and who he is with before I send a message. I don’t get that with email.”
Suddenly, I felt like a Frank Sinatra fan watching the Beatles perform on Ed Sullivan. The world was changing and once again the younger generation was at the heart of that change. To my son, plain text was so yesterday. He required an immersive communications experience and email didn’t provide that.
Since then, my son has mostly abandoned the PC for his smartphone. He still does Facebook, but he’s added KIK, Instagram, and several other applications way too cool for me to even know about. Of great interest to me, the telephone guy, is that voice is his last choice for communications. He would rather tag a photo than dial a telephone number.
The point of all this rambling is to say that unified communications continues to evolve and you can’t look at it in the ways you once did. The Millennials have redefined what it means to share information between two or more people. The generation following the Millenials (do they have a name?) will shake things up even more.
Unified communications set out to tie voice, video, instant message, and presence into a single package. It’s now focused on creating an entire ecosystem of players that loosely connect to provide a more immersive experience. It’s not enough to know that someone is online. You want to know where he is, what his current mood is, who he is with, what he is listening to, what did he just read, who just shared something with him, what did he just share, and how does he want to “speak” with you.
The big communications vendors such as Avaya, Microsoft, and Cisco will continue to be relevant, but the upstarts that write the next big IOS or Android apps will increasingly play a huge role in UC. The winners will be the folks who understand that and create an open environment that fosters cooperation between all players. The losers will put all their eggs into a single basket that will one day sound like Mitch Miller in a world of Bruno Mars.