There was a time when unified communications and collaboration (UC, sometimes UCC) was almost as hot a topic as...
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the cloud. Since then, it's seems UC has stalled in the starting gate, but what's old could be new again -- reborn as UC in the cloud. Understanding why this could happen and what it could mean starts by recognizing why the old model of UC failed, assessing the role of mobility and the cloud in evolving cooperative models, and picking software as a service (SaaS) approaches that the market could validate.
A look into the past
UC used to be about bringing email and instant messaging (IM) together with the phone, which had supported nearly all collaboration before the Internet. The idea behind early UC products was that workers would find it more convenient to have all of their communications options mediated from a single platform, a place where they could decide whether to email, IM or call, and where their status or presence on one activity could be reflected in another. That meant having the option to block incoming calls while typing an email or document.
This model suffered from near- and long-term problems. Most workers didn't mind having different applications or platforms for email and IM versus voice, so adoption of the UC paradigm was slow. Before it ever really got started, smartphones and tablets offered users a single platform for all communication without UC tools. Therefore, UC in its traditional unifying form will never achieve critical market mass. Similarly, there is little chance that simply hosting this traditional model in the cloud will have a significant impact.
What the future holds
Interestingly, the long-term killer of traditional UC, the mobile device, is the primary market driver of UC in the cloud. Mobile workers take their information resources to work. This is an entirely new way of using technology, one that integrates it with the hands-on, day-to-day aspects of a worker's activity. Workers empowered by mobile devices want answers and not information, and that means a new set of applications designed to provide data in the context of worker activity. This new class of applications is ideal for the cloud, and current cloud data proves that point.
The most popular productivity applications in the cloud today deal with customer relationship management (CRM), which lets sales and sales support personnel work more effectively on customer problems. These applications are most likely to be accessed remotely by mobile users. Other mobile applications dealing with inventory management and technical support and service are also increasingly implemented in the cloud. All these applications create a kind of knowledge bubble around the worker and the context of the worker's current activity. Since collaboration means bringing workers together in support of a common goal, this context must be shared to make it effective. Collaboration begins at the application level with the information context the worker has established, and with SaaS and the cloud.
If a salesperson visiting a customer has a question on order status or that salesperson needs to collaborate with another worker to get the information, the CRM or order entry system is the logical place to start. Collaboration starts with the parties sharing context, which is something a SaaS application can provide.
Video collaboration has been a focus for vendors, and video or images can represent a context to be shared. For example, a worker who is wiring a panel wonders what a specific wire was. Another expert answers the question, but only if that expert can see what the worker is viewing. If a diagram of the panel were sent to the worker's device, with all circuits labeled, it might answer the question. In the future, the worker might point to a wire and ask an artificially intelligent (AI) entity to identify it. Collaboration, in this case, might be an intermediary point between the two approaches -- an expert simply stands in for that AI entity until technology advances to make AI solutions possible.
Architects will recognize this model for SaaS collaboration to be similar to a data-coupled workflow model using representational state transfer or service-oriented architecture. A worker's knowledge bubble is a data model derived from where the worker is and what information the worker has obtained -- either from his or her surroundings or from existing SaaS applications. This data model can then be exchanged with other workers, interpreted by applications, etc. It would appear SaaS business software could create this data model, and communications tools linked to SaaS could distribute it to other parties. The same model could then become the center for collaboration, whether via something basic like IM or email, webinars or video chats.
Collaboration cannot be effective, whether it is in our outside the cloud, if the focus is on collaboration tools and not on why, and on what, workers need to collaborate. What the cloud can do for UC is make those basic productivity paradigms into components that can then be augmented with UC components to support productive behavior. While companies with in-house resources could develop this model internally, some UC vendors have already provided links with popular SaaS services like Salesforce.com. So far, the tools have limited ability to amass contextual data like worker location or images of surrounding objects, but there appears to be some acceptance of the value of these enhancements by vendors like Cisco, IBM and Microsoft. The industry will likely follow major vendors' leads.
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