Enterprise Connect 2013: What Was Hot, What Was Not

Cloud. Mobile. Video. WebRTC. Unified Communications. Those were the biggest trends at Enterprise Connect 2013, according to analysts convening at the final session of the the communication and collaboration industry’s leading conference, which attracted 5,000 attendees between Monday and Thursday this week. Though this all-star cast didn’t always agree on which direction each trend was headed, nor why.

Take Unified Communications, a term describing the convergence of voice, video, instant messaging, presence and some other services into the same application or dashboard.

“It used to be that Unified Communications wasn’t all that unified. You had to go get it all yourself,” said Zeus Kerravala, the former Yankee Group analyst who is now principal analyst ZK Research. Now, vendors are finally delivering solutions that in his mind truly live up to the UC moniker.

As a result, many enterprises at EC13 told Kevin Kieller, a partner with EnableUC, that they are deploying UC to more than 10,000 employees. “It’s no longer about if they should use UC. They’ve moved past the pilots,” he said.

“UC has moved out of the dream stage,” agreed Fred Knight, the longtime organizer of Enterprise Connect and moderator of the analyst session.But others argue that UC’s inroads into areas such as mobile remain disappointing. “You go to a UC conference, and you hear a lot about mobility,” said Michael Finneran, president of dBrn Associates. “You go to a mobile conference, and you never hear about UC.”

Once dominated by hardware such as telepresence systems and the iconic PBX box, the communications industry has moved heavily towards software, and the next logical step, the delivery of that software as a cloud service or through a browser interface, such as with WebRTC.

(Avaya is helping to lead this trend. Read about the Collaborative Cloud services we announced earlier this week at EC 13, as well as our work with WebRTC).

The move away from hardware-centric PBX boxes and telepresence rooms towards software and services will empower workers and IT managers alike to be much more agile.

Unified Communications “is moving away from being a set of applications, but a platform” where you can quickly turn on features like video chat and turn them back off again, Kerravala said.

Similarly, mobile communication and video apps “no longer just sport dumbed-down desktop interfaces but were taking advantage of what the devices can offer,” said Melanie Turek vice-president of research with Frost & Sullivan. Software and apps “are the only way to get us to the next level, that of ubiquity.”

That’s especially true with WebRTC, which proponents argue will empower regular Web developers to easily build communications services in a matter of days or hours.

This “will start a whole new wave of communications,” declared Dave Michels, an analyst with TalkingPointz. 

However, WebRTC is getting so much positive attention despite still being mostly at the standards-building phase that it was on the verge of being “overhyped,” said Keiller, who noted only a few mature WebRTC applications so far today.

The inexorable move towards software is also causing the enterprise applications and communications worlds to blend. As a result, vendors like Salesforce.com and SAP are now selling true communications applications – call centers, in the case of SAP, said Marty Parker, principal consultant with UniComm Consulting.

“Communications is moving up the stack and other vendors are moving in,” Kerravala
said. You’ve got IBM dancing around, Oracle moving in.”

To survive, communications and collaboration vendors need to up their knowledge of what businesses want, especially now that line of business managers are going around IT and buying cloud-based services themselves, Turek said.

The alternative is for system integrators and service providers to fill in the gaps by tailoring technologies towards specific industries and customers, says Parker.

One of the ironies of the communications industry is that gear between different vendors often don’t naturally communicate well with each other (though some vendors like Avaya have been emphasizing interoperability and open-ness, see CEO Kevin Kennedy’s keynote at Enterprise Connect).

On this issue of interoperability, analysts disagreed whether progress has been made. “Two years ago, vendors said it couldn’t be done. This year, they said it could be,” Parker said. But Knight thinks the interoperability situation is getting “uglier” as does Michels. “I think we’ve given up that that the vendors will solve it.”

And Harris noted that WebRTC is already becoming the next battleground for interoperability, with Google, Mozilla, Cisco, Avaya and other players
supporting one standard, Microsoft seemingly in another corner with its CU-WebRTC proposal, and Apple the wild card.

Parker is optimistic that the industry is moving towards open standards and interoperability, though. “The losers will be those people who still believe that top-to-bottom vertical integration is the right business model,” he said.

Other losers will be the many smaller cloud-based communications vendors that will not survive the inevitable shakeout in the next several years, said Michels. With an estimated 200-odd vendors, “those numbers will come down,” he said.

Room-based videoconferencing gear and telepresence systems may be supplanted by desktop and mobile video chatting, though they won’t go extinct, just as “PCs didn’t replace the mainframe,” Kerravala said.

Michels was more definite. “The video industry has to drop the term conferencing. That’s not where things are going” he said.

While the Consumerization of IT has also made its way into communications, though there are limits. “There will be IT decisionmakers who think that the way they Skype with their grandkids is how you do it in the enterprise, they don’t realize how much hardware is still involved in those solutions,” Harris said.

Others like Parker say that heavily-regulated industries like healthcare by necessity won’t be able to import many consumer innovations.

Even communications hardware isn’t disappearing the shelves, either. Many vendors are bringing out integrated software-hardware appliances for fast, easy deployment, Kerravala said, pointing to Avaya’s Collaboration Pods as an example.

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