Thursday, March 29, 2012

What's an End-User Experience Anyway?

This is one of my favorite topics, and it's a theme I'm exploring lately in a series of posts for the UCStrategies portal. I think the end-user experience - EUE - means different things to different people - just like UC, and that's where I see a lot of challenges. I also think delivering a good EUE is much harder to do than it looks, and I see this as an area that might not get enough attention when deploying UC.

Enough - that's the hook. For the rest, you're invited to read my post, and from there my previous post that launched this series. The current post is running now on the UCStrategies portal, and here's the link. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Business Value of Mobility for Collaboration

I’m continuing the mobility theme here for my series of posts to support the CIO Collaboration Network. My last post served as an introduction to my role in this program, and to explain that while Avaya is the sponsor, I won’t be writing about them, or any other vendor for that matter. These posts are just thought leadership about trends I’m seeing in the collaboration space.

This month my focus is on mobility, and each post looks at a specific aspect of that topic. Last week’s post addressed some issues around the impact of consumerization, and now I’m going to shift over to the business value of mobility.

In terms of improving our ability to collaborate, the business value that mobility brings should be obvious. Fair enough, but let’s look beyond that, since business value can mean many things. The financial impact is the logical starting point, but this is actually a bit complicated. In most businesses, the financial challenge around mobility is managing costs. Unlike fixed telephony, where IP is bringing costs down, mobility costs can easily spiral out of control, especially for global travelers.

Of course, with smartphones and tablets, mobility costs have two main components – voice and data. Until 4G and LTE become the norm, telephony costs will remain high with mobility, and we just have to accept that as a fact of business life. Data costs are driven by bandwidth consumption rather than minutes and connectivity, and deliver a wider range of collaboration capabilities. Enterprises have more leverage here to negotiate volume deals with carriers, and for the most part, bandwidth costs are coming down. As such, the cost of supporting mobility is not that straightforward to calculate, let alone manage.

To get a more complete picture, you also need to factor in various other costs to support mobility as well as extend PBX-based features/functions to those devices. I’m thinking here about network-related costs to address things like FMC integration, data backup, storage, security, privacy, bandwidth prioritization, etc. Conversely, the associated costs here can be offset by BYOD, whereby employees are bearing the cost to acquire these devices. This will likely become a fluid area, as enterprises evolve policies around the cost and ownership of smartphones and tablets. There is much more to consider here, but this will suffice for purposes of my post.

Cost is one side of the business value equation, and however you define what’s being spent on mobility, the “value” is all relative to the benefits that accrue in return. I would need many posts to explore all the benefits that mobility brings to collaboration, and for now, I’ll just cite a couple to illustrate the scope of what’s possible. First would be the immediate benefits, and then there are the longer-term results to consider.

The initial benefits are more evident for smaller scale forms of collaboration, either for 1-to-1 situations or addressing imminent needs. In these cases, voice-based collaboration will usually get the job done, and the business value of mobility comes from basic things like higher availability, accessibility and responsiveness. The underlying benefit comes from the fact that employees are increasingly not tethered to their desks, and mobility allows them to be equally productive away from the office.

I view the longer term benefits as having far greater business value to enterprises. By longer term, I mean the normalization of mobility as a productive work mode. Collaboration aside, mobility has many other benefits for the enterprise, especially for remote or even outsourced employees. In this broader context, the key to collaboration is the ability to replicate all the desktop tools using a mobile device.

We’re not there yet, but as operators upgrade to 4G and LTE, and as mobile applications mature, employees will go well beyond voice to collaborate. Full-featured, multimodal UC will soon become mobile-ready, and help make full use of what smartphones and tablets can offer in a business environment. That’s a much richer form of business value than voice alone, and no matter how you measure it, the price will be worth it.

This post sponsored by the CIO Collaboration Network and Avaya.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Ontario IT Buyers Forum - Toronto and Ottawa - Up, Up and Away

Earlier this week I posted about a mini road show I was about to go on, with events in Toronto and Ottawa. Well, am back now, and I'd say it was pretty successful all around. This was the 2012 IT Buyers Forum, sponsored by the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, with some help from the Export Development Corporation and Invest Ottawa.

It's a good example of a government program designed to support local tech companies and bring international buyers to their doorstep. So, in both cities, there was a group of representatives from five countries - China, Japan, Mexico, Brazil and Turkey. The speakers were from various operators, private companies and industry groups, and all told, we got a solid overview of what's happening in those markets in terms of carrier deployments, tech adoption and the growing role of IT.

On the local side, there was a wide range of Ontario-based vendors who would love to do business in these markets, and we had a good mix of small companies and more established players who are already selling internationally.

My role in all this was to set the table and provide an overview of key trends I'm seeing in telecom and IT, and from all the feedback so far, my commentary was well received. I certainly made my share of new contacts with both local tech companies and the international contingent, so I have some promising follow ups to make now. I also have some intriguing overseas opportunities now that need exploration, so who knows where that could go? All in a day's work.

Waving the Canadian flag, I'll just leave you with this thought. We need programs like this to help companies grow, especially globally. Most of the companies here were pretty small, but seem to have good technology. This is pretty typical, especially for Canadian companies, and there's a host of reasons why most stay small, despite bigger aspirations.

After a lot of hallway and table-talk, there's no doubt these companies aspire to be on a big stage, but there's a cautionary tale here. Canada hasn't had much success creating Tier 1 world beaters in the tech/telecom space. We had Nortel for a while, and it wouldn't be impossible for RIM could slip away. That's not the plan, but they have a pretty big hole to dig out from.

Anyhow, the Ontario government is doing the right thing here, and am glad they're not overselling the future. It must be hard for small companies to set a realistic growth goal - we just can't seem to create really big ones here. Of course, the Ottawa event was right in the shadow of Mitel's offices, and in my books, they'd be the biggest fish in our pond if RIM were to fall. I really like Mitel, and maybe that's about as big we as we can make them these days. Nothing wrong with that, of course, and for now let's just focus on getting some deals done with the participants who came from so away. At least we gave them some balmy weather, and that just might fool them into thinking it's like that all year round.

Well, probably not, but as per the title of this post, up, up and away is still the vibe I got from the experience. So, kudos to the hosts, and I hope the international visitors came away with some great relationships that will help put some of our homegrown companies on a bigger map.

Coda - this was a private event, so I couldn't take photos of the sessions. Instead, I have another take on the up, up and away theme that came from an unusual confluence of events that took place over the past couple of day. Hope you like it...

8am, Tuesday - looking up AT the CN Tower from the 35th floor, shrouded in the Toronto morning fog

7pm, Tuesday - looking down FROM the top of the CN Tower, the highest observation point you can get to in North America. It's not a skyscraper, but tops out at 1,815', well ahead of the Willis Tower (nee Sears Tower) in Chicago, at 1,450'. Both will be surpassed by the new World Trade Center in NYC, but for now, Toronto is tops.

4pm, Wednesday - I'm not done yet going up. Now I'm flying to Ottawa for part 2 of the trip. Not sure of my elevation here, but am definitely higher up than the CN Tower. Really tried to get a shot from here looking down on the CN Tower, but couldn't get the right view - dang.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Collaboration, mobility and a whole lot more - posting for the CIO Collaboration Network

I’m pleased to be joining this community, which appropriately is focused on the power of collaboration. This has become a powerful word in the communications lexicon lately, and on a basic level, my writing here is part of a broader collaborative effort to provide some objective thought leadership around the topic.

This is my first post in support of the CIO Collaboration Network initiative sponsored by Avaya, and some housekeeping is in order. First off, you won’t see me talking much here about Avaya or their specific offerings. For that matter, I won’t be citing other vendors in the collaboration space either. I’m here to talk about the trends I see that pertain to collaboration; some enrich or enable collaboration, while other trends benefit the other way by virtue of association.

Second, this is not new for me, and is totally in my comfort zone. For those who follow me, you’ll know I post in other places under similar conditions with sponsors. I’ve been doing this long enough, and know how to keep my analysis objective, and vendor-neutral. Finally, for this particular initiative, most of my posts will be here on my blog, but I’ll also be submitting posts that will run solely on the CIO Collaboration Network. The setting doesn’t matter, though, and my analysis will always be independent.

I should add that I'm in good company here, as colleagues Dave Michels and Art Rosenberg will both be regular contributors. Furthermore, Dave serves as the Community Manager here, so along with his posts, he'll be vetting my writing to make sure it's on-target for this audience.

With that out of the way, I’m going to start with the big topic of mobility, which will be explored over the next few posts. For collaboration to be truly effective, the tools need to be accessible where the people are. Up until recently, that wasn’t much of a problem in the workplace since most employees were desk-bound. When you needed to reach someone, a call to their desk phone would do the job, and failing that, an email would get them engaged to work with you.

Mobility has completely changed the dynamics of where we work, and after adding broadband to that, everything else changes, namely how we work and when we work. Not only are employees spending less time at their desks, but they’re spending less time in the office, and increasingly working from remote locations. Without mobile broadband, these trends would not be welcome developments for businesses.

The value of collaboration continues to increase, and never before has the need to share knowledge and expertise been greater. With globalization, business becomes more complex and we live in a world of specialization. Knowledge generalists remain valuable, but very few people have enough broad expertise to help a business grow on their own. This is where collaboration becomes a strategic differentiator, as businesses can perform at a higher level by pooling the expertise of specialists to work on tasks with a common goal.

In that context, mobility is a key driver for collaboration, since specialized knowledge or expertise will not readily be found at a workstation. Not only does mobility allow you to find people when you need them - wherever they are - but it also helps the collaboration process move faster. This is another key factor as the speed of doing business keeps accelerating, and by extension, agility becomes a source of competitive advantage.

So, how should enterprises leverage mobility to collaborate more effectively? I’ll explore this over the next few posts, but let’s start in an unexpected place – our home life. As much as mobility is becoming a lifeline at work, its impact is even greater for personal use, especially among Millennials. The “consumerization of IT” is very real, and employees are increasingly asking IT why they cannot deploy the applications they use back at home here in the office. This is particularly true with mobility, which is where most of the energy from application developers is focused.

The explosion of applications for smartphones and tablets has given consumers many options for collaborating on a personal or social level. These needs may not be as complex as the workplace, but that’s beside the point. Consumer-friendly mobile applications are easy to access and easy to use, and as a matter of course, we’re collaborating without really thinking about it. This may be a user-defined form of collaboration, but the process is no different than in the workplace. In these settings, people are sharing content, using multimodal communication, and reaching consensus around a common goal.

This sure sounds like workplace collaboration to me, and the good news is that consumer-based collaboration helps get people familiar and comfortable with using these tools in the office. I think of this as an unintended consequence, and it’s certainly a benefit so long as IT can make workplace collaboration as easy to do as at home. Not only does this help employees collaborate in the office, but when adding mobility to the equation, they can do this anyplace, anytime. In that regard, mobility and consumerization have an additive effect to collaboration that’s pretty hard to beat, and if IT isn’t thinking along these lines, they should be.

This post sponsored by the CIO Collaboration Network and Avaya

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

New post series - helping channels sell UC

Am on a good run right now, writing in a variety of places, and got a couple others coming you haven't seen yet. This is a shout-out about a series we just got going today on the UCStrategies portal, something my regular readers will know about.

In addition to my regular contributions there, I'm writing a series of posts over the next few weeks about channel-related issues/challenges for selling UC. Perhaps "selling" is too strong of a word, but ultimately that's their business, and it's clear that UC is not a simple sale.

To provide some clarity on this, I'm posting my thoughts in this series. The first post is running now, and asks the fundamental question around selling UC - "what business are you really in?". If you're dying to find - and of course you are! - click here, read away, and share your thoughts.

Guest Post - the Changing Role of Telephony

From time to time I accept requests to write guest posts on various blogs and portals, with the most recent one being for Toshiba. They may not be a household name for business telecom systems in North America, but depending on whose numbers you follow, they're a top 5 market share vendor for IP phone systems. Being a $67 billion dollar global giant, they're pretty hard to pass by, and when they approached me for this, I was happy to oblige.

These days, every company is fighting for attention on the Web, and Toshiba Telecom has had a blog portal since January 2011. My post was published late yesterday, and being exclusive to their portal, you'll have to go there to read it - which I hope you do! It's about how I see the role of telephony changing, and what vendors need to do to keep their value proposition fresh.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

G+ profile for JAA - and I'm not talking about Google!

For better or worse, there are two G+'s in town - at least in my world. Most of you know about Google Plus, which actually doesn't figure high on my radar. Closer to home is the G+ community portal recently launched by Gerson Lehrman Group.

I've been part of their expert network for many years, and I enjoy sharing my analysis with the financial community. To build on this, they recently launched the GLG GPlus portal, which is accessible to the public. I've just started supporting the portal by posting there and answering questions where I can add some insight. It's a great resource to tap into, and hopefully you'll take advantage.

To help familiarize readers with GLG's network of experts, each month they feature a few of them in their e-newsletter. The March issue just came out yesterday, and am happy to say I'm one of the featured experts. So, a simple shout-out for myself, but more importantly, you should check out - and follow G+. They do a great job vetting their experts, so you can be certain the quality will be better than your average portal.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Speaking this week in Toronto and Ottawa

My day and week is evolving by the minute, and wanted to get this quick post out about my latest speaking gigs. I've been invited by the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development to be the opening speaker at the IT International Buyers and Global Export Forum 2012.

It's a mini road show, with the Toronto leg happening tomorrow, and then again in Ottawa on Thursday. I'll be speaking on both days about five key trends and opportunities facing IT, namely UC, mobile apps, cloud communications, new business models and what today's customer experience needs to look like.

The audience will be local tech/IT vendors, likely a mix of startups and established players. These forums of course, are a showcase for Ontario companies, so joining them will the "IT buyers" from some pretty major international carriers and IT vendors - coming from China, Japan, Brazil, Mexico and Turkey. I'll be dressing sharp, and am sure the local rising stars will have their elevator pitches down cold. Sure hope so!

These are invitation-only events, so there's not much more I can tell you other than what I've added on my website events calendar. Hopefully, my hosts be ok with me posting photos, so I'll share what I can here as well as on Twitter. Go Canada!

Friday, March 16, 2012

ShoreTel Investor Day 2012 - takeaways and photos

My travels took me to San Francisco on Wednesday for ShoreTel's Investor Day event. Held primarily for financial analysts, a few industry analysts were invited, including myself. It was a great opportunity to hear from the management teams of both ShoreTel and their recent acquisition, M5 Networks.

I posted about this deal recently, and pulled a new set of thoughts together based on what we were hearing on Wednesday. That missive is running now on UCStrategies, and is part of my regular monthly contribution to the UCStrategies community.

Aside from that, thought I'd share a few photos from the event, which was held at AT&T Park, home of the SF Giants, who happen to be a ShoreTel customer. The weather was pretty dreary, but otherwise, I'd say this worked out pretty well all around. Enjoy...

ShoreTel CEO Peter Blackmore kicking things off...

M5 CEO Dan Hoffman doing the same - as per the really cool graphic above him - yeah, he's pretty much hitting it out of the park in terms of having built the cloud model into a successful business over the past 10 years.

Ok, now look carefully - I'm only going to tell you this once. This was during their demo showing seamless 4 digit PBX calling integration with an iPhone. They've got this trick figured out pretty well, but how about what's going on with the IP phone?

If you look closely, you'll see it's a Cisco phone - fair enough, since that's the standard endpoint M5 supports with their customers. However, now that they're here with ShoreTel, the branding needs to be updated, since these are now ShoreTel apps. So, as explained, this was the world's first example of a ShoreTel app running over a Cisco phone. Cool, huh? Maybe a sign of where the market is going? Time will tell...

Ok, these updates were really interesting guys, but hey, the rain has stopped, and being a die-hard Red Sox fan, c'mon, let's get to the fun stuff - the ballpark tour.

So, channel your inner child - you're 7, and your Dad is taking you to your first MLB game. Is there anything more exciting and awesome than emerging from the tunnel and the incredible anticipation of seeing the baseball field explode into full green glory for the first time??? Not a chance. This is probably the first time you've realized that TV is cool, but can't hold a candle to being there in person. Can you think of a more all-American memory seared into your brain? I can't.

This was a halfway experience since the ballpark was empty, and not even groomed for baseball. Still pretty cool, though. I'm in my sixth decade of taking in games at Fenway, so nothing new here, but it took me back to my one and only time seeing the old Yankee Stadium - during a Dialogic event in 2008. I had the same 7 year old flashback there too, so if you want to compare photos, here you go.

It's not everyday you get to wander along the warning track of an empty ballpark, so I took full advantage.

The bullpen phone in the dugout - not very sophisticated, but probably gets the job done. Memo to ShoreTel and M5 - this setup shouldn't be too hard to improve on, right guys?

This was fun - the telecom room deep in the bowels of the building. Don't worry folks, this isn't what they use today - it's what they used to use, and now it just sits idle against this wall. Pretty graphic reminder about how telecom has evolved, and I'm sure ShoreTel has done a good job reminding the Giants about how their Brilliantly Simple solutions are a big improvement.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Aculab Cloud and BLI Messaging case study – a match made in the cloud

As you may know, Aculab is a recent sponsor of my blog, which is one of many channels they are partnering with to promote their recently-launched Cloud offering. For me, this is an interesting opportunity to stay close to how a vendor goes to market with cloud, and my role is to support their efforts in a reasonably objective manner. I’m not here to do direct shout-outs for Aculab, but instead to provide higher level support to help the market understand the cloud value proposition.

One way of doing this is with a case study, and that’s the focus of this post. You can certainly read this at face value to understand how Aculab Cloud is being deployed by this particular customer – BLI Messaging. That’s fine, but what I really want you to do is step back and look at the use-case scenario and the business value that cloud provides.

With that preamble out of the way, let’s get to it. BLI Messaging is a pretty interesting company. They’ve been in the outbound messaging business over 20 years, and have a lot of history working with Aculab’s Prosody X cards. Just like Aculab, they know legacy, so there’s a very familiar frame of reference for anyone who remembers rotary dial, touchtone and dialup. All of these served their intended purpose very well for a long time, but nobody talks about these any more, and anyone under 30 will simply give you a blank stare.

I’m pretty sure Aculab saw the same thing coming, and five years from now, those 30 somethings will give you their world-weary “well, duh” response when talking about putting telecom applications up in the cloud. Sure, there’s a generational thing going on here, but the cloud is clearly carrying the day lately, and it seems like the logical destination for almost everything to do with communications.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not here to say the cloud is the killer app (remember that term?) that renders all forms of hardware obsolete. I have my share of concerns about the cloud – security and privacy in particular – but there are many cases where it simply is a better way to go. After doing some research and interviews with BLI Messaging, I’m definitely of the view this is one of those cases. No doubt this is a good showcase for Aculab, but I think it plays even better to the intrinsic strengths of what the cloud has to offer.

Let’s just look briefly at the business – BLI Messaging provides high volume, time sensitive messaging and notification broadcasting for a wide range of clients. With just that simple overview, am sure you can see where this is going. Think about simple scenarios like school closures, polling station hours on Election Day, or public health announcements for flu shots. Outbound messaging and notification is a special type of business, and BLI Messaging has been doing this a long time across various modes – telecom, fax, email, text, etc.

Some applications are more time sensitive than others, but the key is being able to deliver the message to the target audience in an efficient manner. For that to happen, a lot of back end processes have to go right, and that’s where partners like Aculab come into the picture.

In the legacy, hardware-based world, more advance planning and programming was required, and notifications took longer to get done. Furthermore, these applications were difficult and costly to scale, making it more challenging to change plans in mid-stream. Notifications were certainly getting done, but not in the most optimal, responsive manner.

Both Aculab and BLI Messaging recognized these limitations, and moving to the cloud last November together has been a good idea all around. Thinking about Aculab’s customer, BLI Messaging is in a business that highly values responsiveness and scale. While many messaging requirements have manageable lead times, the ones that really define success require short notice, high volume communication. To do that, BLI Messaging needs a platform with a solid, scalable back end that lets them focus on quickly developing the applications that address the needs of their customers.

With Aculab hosting the virtual infrastructure in their cloud, BLI Messaging doesn’t have to worry about scaling. They only pay for the network capacity consumed – no more, no less. In the legacy world they would typically oversubscribe to buy more capacity than needed to ensure that all messages could be delivered. This got the job done, but sometimes added unnecessary cost. In that regard, the cloud model is more cost effective, and cuts out the Capex that previously would have been tied up in BLI Messaging’s own data center.

Furthermore, the cloud shifts the bottleneck from onsite hardware out to the carrier networks. The customer is no longer tied to the hardware interface now that it runs in the cloud. Capacity issues now rest with routing among carriers, and this is where the cloud and IP networks really add value. If there is a last minute need to ramp up the volume of messages, BLI Messaging can dynamically move traffic from one carrier or reseller to another if there’s congestion. Not only that, but traffic can seamlessly be shifted within a carrier’s network if problems arise. For example, if a carrier’s Chicago POP is down due to a power outage, the traffic can be routed to their operational POP in Dallas.

The key here is having flexibility to move on the fly and meet short order customer requirements. Sometimes there’s an urgency for business purposes, but there are also more pressing requirements that emerge without warning such as serious traffic incidents, community health alerts, school/campus lockdowns, extreme weather warnings, etc.

In short, Aculab Cloud allows BLI Messaging to be more responsive and proactive with customer requirements. The cloud also lets them focus on where they add the most value – developing messaging applications that help solve real business or communications issues. One example that came from my research with BLI Messaging is patient compliance in healthcare. Practitioners face a variety of challenges around the simple fact that patients don’t always follow their prescribed treatments and medication schedules.

Think about the value that comes from sending automated voice or text messages to individual patients with reminders to take their medication or attend their physiotherapy session. An advanced application would take this one step further by triggering an alert back to the physician who could initiate remedial action, especially if the patient is in danger. When done on a large scale, there can be a substantial ripple effect of benefits throughout the patient care value chain.

Moving beyond healthcare, how about adding mobility to the messaging equation? Think about the near real-time possibilities for GPS-enabled notifications. Once you get past the opt-in feature, a world of opportunity opens up here for messaging, both for purely commercial purposes as well as public service announcements. Advances in mobility aside, it’s the dynamic, scalable and rapid response ability of the cloud that really makes mobility an exciting space for companies like BLI Messaging.

Bottom line, with Aculab Cloud, BLI Messaging can pitch bigger customers and provide higher value applications, especially those that are time sensitive. In today’s 24/7, 140 character instant information world, this capability can be a real differentiator. Theirs is very much an on-demand business, and that’s exactly what the cloud works best for. Time to market is important, especially with the short shelf life of notifications, so the faster BLI Messaging can execute, the happier their customers will be. Pretty simple. Messaging may not be the first thing that comes to mind with cloud, but it totally makes sense to me, and if you’re with me on this, then I’ve done my job here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Busy in a good way

Blogging has been off and on lately, but that's because I'm busy, with some new projects and writing gigs.

If you saw my ShoreTel/M5 analysis a couple of weeks back, that helps explain my busy-ness. I've never had a post get this much readership, and if I could somehow sustain those numbers here, I'd have a pretty lucrative blog!

Following that, last week's post about the opportunity I'm seeing now in cloud-based video conferencing has also kept me busy, and you'll be hearing more about that space here in due time.

Starting next week, you'll start to see some new content here around collaboration that I'm doing now as part of a broader thought leadership program for a major vendor.

I'm also about to start a monthly column with a publisher you all know. For now, all I can say is that it's titled Rethinking Communications - my first piece has been written and it will run in their May issue. Stay tuned.

Otherwise, I have some new custom projects on the go, and as the deliverables become public, you'll hear about them here.

Also, I'm pushing into a new focus area - helping companies monetize their patents and intellectual property (the other IP). It's a natural fit for the circles I travel in, and if this is on your to-do list, I'd be happy to tell you more.

Back to work...

Friday, March 9, 2012

Enterprise Connect Preview/Big Data

On this week's UCStrategies podcast, the topic was what to expect at Enterprise Connect, coming later this month in Orlando. I won't be attending, but many of my UCS colleagues will be presenting there, so the podcast was a good opportunity to share all this in one place.

It's a major event in the UC space, and all the Tier 1 players will be there. UC is one of several themes they'll be covering, and you'll get a good sense of the landscape from listening to the podcast. While I had nothing to add about the sessions, I was able to contribute some broader thoughts towards the end of the podcast.

Basically, I brought Big Data into the discussion, as I'm seeing this as an emerging need for enterprises get a handle on. I think it's a huge opportunity, especially for UC, which can add a lot of value if used in the right way for Big Data. We're generating far more information than anyone knows what to do with, and the real-time nature of UC puts it right in the middle of where the most vibrant communication is happening in the enterprise. My sense is there will be some discussion of Big Data at Enterprise Connect, but I'll bet it will be right up there with cloud and mobility next year. You heard it here first!

The podcast has been posted now, and was hosted by Marty Parker - here you go, enjoy.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

ShoreTel/M5 was good news for voice, but perhaps even better for cloud-based video - why the time is right

I recently posted about ShoreTel’s acquisition of M5 Networks (which is still getting tons of readership!), which may signal the strongest validation yet for cloud-based VoIP as an alternative to premises-based telephony systems. The deal is good news for both companies, and even better news for the broader cloud communications space. ShoreTel’s move spells out a few realities that I think are becoming important drivers for everyone – vendors, service providers, businesses – especially SMBs, and the investment community.

First is the fact that ShoreTel had a simple make or buy decision on its hands. They have a healthy premises-based business, but have read the tea leaves, and recognized the need for a cloud-based offering sooner than later. ShoreTel is not known as innovator, so they did the smart thing and bought the best company on the market. Not only does that give them an instant entrĂ©e for cloud services, but they now have M5’s rich expertise in-house, which will now be their engine to keep the offering fresh. That’s a pretty good model for competitive differentiation, and is far more of a sure thing than trying to build it internally and hope the market buys it.

On top of that, the investment community now has a valuation benchmark based on what the market will bear for cloud-based communications at this early of its lifecycle. If ShoreTel can makes things work with M5 – and it’s theirs to lose, really – the pressure will be on for competitors to keep up, and with so few cloud VoIP players of substance out there, the deal values will jack up just to get into the game. That’s when things will get a bit crazy for everyone but ShoreTel, whose first-mover gambit may prove to be a bargain. Nice storyline, huh?

In case you’re wondering where I’m going with this, it’s not about VoIP. As promising as things sound for cloud-based VoIP, telephony, voice, etc., there’s an even better opportunity shaping up for video. Since attending the ITExpo in Miami, and a few other things since, I’m of the mind that ShoreTel/M5 is setting the stage for a similar run in video. Not quite yet, but when the stars line up, the story will unfold pretty much the same way.

We all know that video is complex, and people aren’t generally comfortable using it as an everyday mode like telephony. Fair enough, but desktop video – especially when SIP-based – has come a long way, and is ready for prime-time. Indirectly, we can thank smartphones and tablets for that, as their off-the-charts adoption has helped make video more mainstream. In a business setting, however, the stakes are higher, as interoperability creates even more challenges than ease of use.

To date, legacy video has been expensive, complex, reservation-based and proprietary. In an ideal IP-based environment, the exact opposite for each is true, and businesses are starting to get a taste of that with a few early stage cloud-based offerings. ShoreTel/M5 is really just another step along the way for validating the cloud as a viable platform for business communications and collaboration solutions. Every telecom and UC-focused vendor is trying to develop some form of a hosted or cloud-based offering; some incorporate video, but it is never the lead application.

This leaves room for cloud offerings built specifically around video, which is now mature enough to manage as a standalone offering. The great thing about cloud is how easily you can offer on-demand services, which video is very well suited for. Just like M5 is a leading example of cloud-based VoIP, there are offerings carving out the same niche in video. There are two pureplays on my radar here – Vidtel and BlueJeans – and either – or both – could have a similar exit to M5 if things go well. More importantly, this market is moving so quickly now, and should that happen, I can guarantee you it won’t take 10 years like it did with M5.

While it won’t take as long, video does have different technology issues and business drivers than voice. Unlike VoIP, video is really hard to give away and still make money. There are too many variables in terms of network compatibility/traversal, codec support, endpoint support, quality of experience, etc. That said, there certainly are lots of other vendors who are gaining traction with varying degrees of cloud-based video conferencing services for SMBs and enterprises – such as Nefsis, Vidyo and Glowpoint.

With the lines blurring between personal and business services, you also need to think about consumer-focused plays like TokBox and ooVoo. I don’t see them taking much business away from the other vendors any time soon, but these days, we’re seeing a lot of consumer-based applications finding their way into the business space. Just a thought.

Anyhow, what I’m getting at are business models. Clearly, there are viable ways to offer cloud-based video services, and awareness is quickly building in the business market. As mentioned, video has more wrinkles than voice, and in terms of having success, I think the basic technology is secondary to the business models and paths to market.

As with voice, video must compete with the free offerings that serve the bottom end of the market. The likes of Skype and Google can and will serve that market, simply by virtue of being a click away for their hundreds of millions of users. Nobody can compete with that and make money, so let’s just take that as a given. These offerings are fine for ad hoc sessions, but most businesses want something that’s higher quality, more scalable and more reliable – and plenty of them are willing to pay for it.

At the top end, of course, we have premises-based systems, with immersive telepresence being the gold standard. It’s a fantastic experience, but so is driving a Porsche, and that’s not a realistic option for most businesses. Cisco may be doing big business with telepresence, but there’s a huge middle earth that can’t justify the cost, but also want something better than free. That’s the opportunity that the likes of BlueJeans and Vidtel are chasing, and I think 2012 is going to be an inflection point here.

Just like the early days of VoIP when AT&T and Vonage spent heavily to create awareness and interest, the buzz coming from both the top and bottom ends of the video market will be good for everybody. Smaller vendors will benefit from the boost in awareness, and as video becomes more demand-driven, the business models will become more stable.

Coming back to paths to market, the pureplays – Vidtel, BlueJeans, etc. – are actually one of three basic options. Of the other two, one is vendor-based and the other is operator-based. Briefly, along with Cisco, we have the usual suspects such as Polycom and Lifesize. They all provide a great user experience, but of course are expensive, and while all advocate being open, they work best with an end-to-end setup. On the operator side, it seems like everyone is getting into the act. Notable examples include 8x8 and Telesphere, and of course the customers of BroadSoft and Metaswitch can all go down this road now.

Higher up the food chain, there’s OVCC – the Open Visual Communications Consortium. This is a great way for the likes of AT&T, Verizon, BT, Orange, etc. to tap into this market, but there’s also a strong vendor element to OVCC, led by Polycom, Acme Packet and Dialogic. A cynic would say, pick your poison, as both of these broader-based options have varying degrees of vendor lock-in.

A true cloud-based service is vendor-agnostic, and works across all platforms and endpoint scenarios. That’s exactly where Vidtel and BlueJeans are zeroed in, and this should prove to be pretty fertile ground. No doubt, lots of businesses will go with the name brand vendors and carriers, especially if they’re just dipping their toes into the cloud. Fair enough, but there’s a growing segment who are ready to go further and want the full range of choice that a cloud pureplay can provide. In other words, being able to use video with different endpoint vendors, fixed or mobile devices, Web-based platforms like Skype, and connecting between IP and legacy networks, protocols and codecs (SIP, H.323, H.264, etc.).

It’s early days yet, but each company is pursuing different paths to market, and I think this should be closely followed as a barometer for what’s the best way to drive the adoption of cloud-based video. In short, Vidtel is relying on channels, whereas BlueJeans is mostly going direct and getting businesses to sign up with them on their own. This is the classic fork-in-the-road scenario from telecom, and there is definitely a place for both here – and that may turn out to be true for video.

Following these paths, Vidtel relies on partners to leverage their relationships and footprint with business customers. This group is a mix of video-centric VARs, video vendors (remember, Vidtel and BlueJeans are cloud platforms – they provide the network and virtual infrastructure – not the endpoints) and service providers who want to add video to their portfolio – ideally on a private label basis. BlueJeans, on the other hand, is building business one win at a time. By using various forms of advertising, they can quickly build up a customer base that’s theirs.

Ultimately, I think the market will decide which model works best. I think it really comes down to trust, and that’s where I think channels have the upper hand. If they have good relationships in place, adding video isn’t a big leap, especially if it’s under their own brand. As far as I know, BlueJeans does not support private labeling, as they prefer to own the customer – which creates natural conflicts if/when channels are involved. Vidtel avoids this issue, and being a smaller player, is happy to go with the flow and take their wins any way they can. On that note, it’s worth mentioning that Vidtel’s pricing is lower than BlueJeans, which itself can be another driver for adoption. Not only that, but this provides more room for channels to add an attractive margin and still be competitive on price.

Another consideration in favor of the channel is their ability – and desire – to integrate video with UC platforms. This can be a great way to strengthen the customer relationship and give them as much of a collaboration solution as they like. Furthermore, Vidtel supports both H.323 and SIP, giving channels more flexibility to work with clients who have a mix of legacy and IP in their network.

This is much harder to do when taking the best-of-breed approach by going direct with BlueJeans, at which point you’re on your own to bolt this on to whatever UC or collaboration platform you’re using. On the other hand, if what you want is an affordable, easy to use cloud-based video service, it’s hard to go wrong with either offering, and no doubt, BlueJeans will serve this niche especially well.

For either vendor, the appeal is pretty simple. Businesses can adopt video with their existing infrastructure, and not have to worry about making all the pieces work, regardless of which endpoint vendors they have, or which carriers they use. Relative to what businesses will spend going with the likes of Cisco or Polycom, both BlueJeans and Vidtel offer great value, and more flexibility to work out of the box with pretty much any current environment. So, for now, let’s watch as the big players seed the market with their push into the cloud, and hopefully along the way, the value proposition of these pureplays will bubble up and gain their fair share of this wide open opportunity.

Disclosure – I am an Advisor to Vidtel, but feel this post has been both fair and objective. I have been careful not to show bias here, and have deliberately stayed away from any in-depth analysis of the companies discussed herein. My main intent is to highlight the broad opportunity for cloud-based video and the pros/cons of the two main routes to market. Your comments are duly welcomed.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Smart IP makes for smart cities

I happened to see the New York Times yesterday - yes, I still read newspapers - and so should you! The feature story in the Sunday Business section caught my eye right away; it was about what IBM is doing to help Rio de Janeiro become a smart city. We're hearing a lot about Big Data lately, but mostly in the context of helping enterprises or institutions manage the impossible web of data that's a natural byproduct of the "Internet of things".

Well, if you think that's a challenge, try doing this for an entire city. That's what this article was about, and with Rio being a big city, the scale is mind boggling. Just like we've seen the rise of the CIO in the enterprise, we're going to see an equivalent role emerge for cities, as super-smart operations centers become the nerve center to coordinate and manage the services that make cities run. I don't think the job function truly exists yet, but it's coming, much like we're seeing nations having CTOs now. With so much information to manage, there's a lot of accountability involved, and as humans, we simply need a point of contact to effectively deal with it.

If this is news to you, it's a fascinating read, especially regarding the role that tehcnology companies have to play. For Rio, IBM is the lead partner, and they have a business unit built solely around this emerging opportunity - Smarter Cities. Cisco is another familiar face that is heavily invested here, and I'm one of a handful of analysts closely following their Smart + Connected Community practice. This is a natural outgrowth for my interest in Smart Grid, which is a key element of these initiatives. I always saw Smart Grid a repeat of what telecom went through with IP, and the underlying networking and communications technologies used there also have a huge role to play in making cities smarter.

There's a fantastic opportunity here for the likes of IBM and Cisco, but of course the bigger and more complex the project, the higher the stakes. Cities know they need to be smarter, more responsive, more agile, better connected, etc. - but often lack the capital resources, technology vision and political will to make it happen. So, here come the vendors, often with a myriad of strategic partners in tow to provide a complete turnkey solution.

This is way more complicated than updating a LAN, so it very much depends on forging new partnerships that mesh the needs of both public and private sectors. To me, this borders on statesmanship - and not just good sales and marketing - especially being so new and with a very short track record of ROI. The stakes are high, but the world is urbanizing faster than we know how to manage, and it's pretty clear that cities need these capabilities. I'll be following closely here, and if you give this article read, I think you'll be too.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Changing role of IT - UCStrategies podcast

It's been a challenging week to get blogging done, but I did want to share this week's UCStrategies podcast here. The topic was how the Millennial generation and BYOD are impacting the role of IT. There's a lot going on here, and I wanted to be sure you know about the podcast.

I didn't participate, but there are plenty of good insights here from folks who work closely with IT and have first hand knowledge about how these developments are playing out. Of course, there's a huge generational shift happening, and it's no different than the divide in telecom between legacy Bellheads and today's Internet-savvy engineers.

Many of these changes are coming faster than IT is able to react, so there's a Darwinian theme to all this, which can be pretty scary. So, if that's got you on the edge of your seat, then hop over to UCStrategies now. Michael Finneran is the host, and has also provided a transcript if you'd rather just read instead.