Boldly going where no UC has gone before

Unified Communications has always been a rather nebulous term but the promise of what it can deliver continues to be something that businesses strive for. It’s a pretty simple concept to express – provide employees with great tools for easy collaboration and interaction and they will get more done and deliver better results, plus they don’t need to waste time and money travelling to an office to do it. Actually executing on this, though, is somewhat harder and although Enterprises have been deploying this technology for years, getting staff to really embrace UC still represents a significant challenge. Even then the whole experience falls down whenever you try to involve outside parties like suppliers, partners and customers. They probably won’t have the same UC solution as you and even if they do getting the two systems to talk to each other is likely to be a herculean task. So predictably everything tends to fall back to the lowest common denominator – the conference call. Despite the fantastic advances that have we have seen in UC technology it’s still good old voice that just works for everyone.  Business, though, does not stop at the artificial perimeters created by the corporate firewall and so neither should UC if it’s ever to deliver on its true promise.

Two interesting developments have emerged lately that give us hope that this final frontier for UC can be breached. Firstly Microsoft has started leveraging the Skype acquisition by integrating it with their Lync platform. Microsoft has come late to the UC party but approached from a position of dominance on the corporate desktop and that mainstay of collaboration for the last 10-15 years – the Exchange server. The other big UC players (Avaya, Cisco, Mitel etc) have all evolved from the IP PBX market and have spent years trying to fight their way onto the corporate desktop alongside Microsoft with varying degrees of success.

Today you can share presence, IM and voice calls between Skype and Lync users – maybe not the full fat UC experience we had hoped for yet but a good first step nonetheless.  What makes this integration so significant is that Skype has become ubiquitous - it has a vast user base and is supported on every device and every platform. In fact, like it or not, it’s the closest thing we have in the UC world to the PSTN network. So Microsoft will be making it really easy for Lync enabled Enterprises to enrich communications with a vast army of small businesses and lots of ordinary folk like you and me who might just be their customers.

Now this is all very well and good but the Internet is all about open standards and choice and Microsoft’s approach is all about you buying into their closed, proprietary platform. That’s where there is another new development to be aware of – the emergence of WebRTC.  This project is all about embedding Skype like capabilities directly into the web browser (so far Firefox and Chrome are on board). Crucially developers can access WebRTC features using just some simple JavaScript API’s and HTML5 without having to understand all the complexities of the underlying technology.

This really opens the floodgates for providing UC-like functionality on any web application without any dependency on the end users installing a specific client or plugin or having an account with a platform provider like Skype. In fact one can easily imagine how this could entirely replace the need for Skype and once the web development community really gets to grips with it who knows what other wild and wacky uses they will dream up. Interest in WebRTC has really exploded in recent months and as you might expect the Enterprise UC crowd are all working hard on enabling their platforms to take advantage of it. Only time will tell whether this new project will be universally adopted  (at some point Microsoft and Apple will have to include it in their browsers) but if all you need is a browser and an Internet connection to enable a full UC experience then maybe the days of the traditional conference call will finally be numbered.

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