Free Unified Communications

I’m a Google fan. I use Gmail, Google Docs, Google Webtools, Picasa, Blogger, Google Talk, Google Desktop and will continue to adopt Google technologies going forward. This isn’t because Google provides the best services. Actually it’s quite the opposite. Google bludgeons their way into uncharted waters often creating waves as well as whirlpools. The reason I use Google is simply because I like their vision. Rome wasn’t built in a day and any good product probably had several prior iterations. The media likes to compare Google’s venture into applications with Microsoft but frankly Microsoft has been around much much longer. We’ve had to endure MS-DOS, Windows 2.x (ugh), Windows 3.1, 95, 98, 2000, XP and now Vista. Those that have followed this path know full well that there were plenty of problems and hurdles along the way. Even now after 2 decades Vista doesn’t do things the way I think it should and it is struggling to find acceptance in the Enterprise.
Today it still annoys me that even though I can use my same Gmail account to log into most Google services I cannot necessarily transfer content between them. What I can say is that in a few years these issues will have disappeared and Google will be a solid competitive offer for a hosted Enterprise. In fact for most Small and Medium Businesses, Google provides all the applications you need to enable messaging, collaboration, document manipulation and now unified communications.
Grand Central offers a combination of personalized call routing, sim-ring, voice mail accessible via the web, inbound and outbound ringtones, click to call, screening and mobile access. In addition they offer unlimited storage for voice messages which are managed much the same way we manage emails today.
Unified Communications isn’t new and companies like Cisco, Nortel, Avaya and Alcatel have been playing in the space for years however none of these telecommunication juggernauts has much to offer in the application space which is where Google has an edge. Although they each offer branded IM and UC solutions most rely heavily on interworking with heavy-hitters including Microsoft, IBM and SAP.
More traditional communications infrastructures relied on PBXs and desk phones with a slow evolution to soft phone clients. More recently, companies like Yahoo, Skype, MSN and Google have extended their communications reach beyond simple IM to voice, video and file sharing. As such there now exists two communications models that for the foreseeable future will need to play nicely together, hence the rush for the telecom giants to work with the application vendors.
In the coming years we’ll see more devices moving towards a soft-client model meaning that even though it looks and feels like a mobile phone it will actually be running a VoIP client and sending the voice packets over a data infrastructure. Technologies like WiMax and LTE are driving mobile users towards a data model rather than discrete voice channels. This means you could conceivably buy a mobile data service from one provider and use a different voice provider. In fact you can even do this today however it tends to be cost prohibitive with the existing data charges. Further, mobile operators have yet to un-bundle the data service from the voice service.
Desk phones as well are changing and will eventually look more like a standalone IM client interface complete with buddy lists, voice and video capabilities. In essence we’re seeing a shift towards separating the application from the device. No longer will a phone be synonymous with voice calls, nor a television with video. Instead all these devices will leverage a web services model that allows any service on any device meaning I can use Facebook to IM friends on my PC, phone, TV or mobile and then simply extend the messaging session to a voice call with document collaboration.
Looking around at who is best positioned to capitalize on this ubiquitous application model it seems Google has an edge. As an example I attended a session at a Lotus Notes 8 launch where the IBM speaker before me was introducing what he called UC2. To him Unified Communications and Collaboration doesn’t even require a traditional telephony component. I asked him about interoperability with traditional devices and pointed out that the world has billions of phones and he looked dumbfounded. His view of the emerging Enterprise calls into question why anyone would want to use a desk phone. To me this was a very naive answer but in fairness to him everyone in IBM is using UC2 and phones are not considered a critical element in the emerging communications paradigm.
Microsoft paints a similar picture and believes the value going forward is with soft-clients and communications integration into portals like SharePoint. This might explain why Cisco announced in fourth quarter last year that one of their primary focus areas going forward is social networking which is really just a targeted portal and content management system. In the near term however there is a huge opportunity developing hybrid models meaning collaboration between vendors is critical.
The point is that this vendor landscape is huge and plagued with interop hurdles and frankly egos. The beauty of Google is in it’s simplicity. Here you can get all you need entirely hosted including a PSTN gateway function. They are pioneering the open source Web Service vision without the baggage of a huge client driven install base. While many will argue they have a long way to go, in the end they will be well positioned to cross the finish line first. For now they just need to connect the dots, focus on usability, and gain some ground in the social networking space.

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