UC Expo 2015: Cloud and mobile bring collaboration to the fore

Unified communications is changing as organisations embrace cloud and shift away from on-premise and bringing collaboration to the fore

2015 could be the year that unified communications (UC) reaches a tipping point of adoption among organisations. Research launched at the 2015 UC Expo, held at Olympia, London, found that over two-thirds of organisations have already started to implement some form of the technology.

The clear trend at the show was the affect of cloud and mobile on how UC is used. Marianne Calder, managing director for collaboration architecture sales Europe at Cisco, said in her opening keynote that more integration between cloud and mobile services would "disturb or disrupt" traditional ways of working in the enterprise.

Calder added that this would mean a move away from an emphasis on individual productivity towards group productivity.

"Individual productivity has been pushed to the very limits," she said. "CEOs can now only enhance productivity through reinventing models of teamwork." 

This also meant having the network and collaboration infrastructure in place to increase agility.

Calder added that hierarchies and specialist teams would have to change to stay ahead of the game, with individual employees becoming interdependent workers.

She warned against creating "collaboration silos" where individuals choose their own productivity tools and applications. To avoid this, organisations would need a wide-ranging collaboration approach to deal with a "digital economy" that demands more flexibility.

Donald McLaughlin, director of collaboration at Cisco UK and Ireland, said that while collaboration technology can undoubtedly embed flexibility in organisations, businesses would need to address the inevitable culture change too.

"Email is old news for many tech-savvy millennial workers. They are far more comfortable with technology, mobile, chat and video than their predecessors," he said.

Skype for Business

Microsoft launched Skype for Business in mid-April. At the UC Expo, Giovanni Mezgec, Skype for Business general manager at Microsoft, said the firm had taken everything it had learned from Skype and added this to Lync to create the best of both.

Read more about unified communications

"We have taken the usability and user base from Skype and converted it into Lync, and taken the enterprise credibility and control and manageability from Lync and fused them together into a single product," said Mezgec.

This could only have happened due to great momentum on both the consumer-side Skype and enterprise-side Lync, he said, adding that around 80% of organisations with 1,000 seats or above were trying Lync and planned to use it for telephony, with many looking to replace their entire communications infrastructure.

Mezgec said the combination of recognisable user interface alongside giving IT the manageability and integration they needed "was the fundamental idea of what Skype for Business is", adding that having something people know about would translate into an enterprise communications product people would want to use.

The product, according to Mezgec, would use Bing technology to look up the Skype directory to find contacts from outside the organisation as well (IT department permitting), connect with them and exchange information.

"We believe Skype for Business will open up new powerful, business-to-business and business-to consumer connectivity and collaboration," he said.

While Mezgec promised a raft of improvements to make the server side of things more reliable, he said Skype for Business would embrace hybrid models as customers still weren't sure they wanted to move to the cloud immediately.

Mezgec said customers want the flexibility of having certain workloads and sets of people in the organisation serviced on-premise, while others could be serviced in the cloud.

Mezgec mentioned Starbucks as an example. While not a Microsoft customer, Starbucks wanted employees at its headquarters to use communications from its own datacentre so managers would have complete control of the information. Retail stores, on the other hand, would use cloud-based communications.

"The ability to be flexible enough to deliver that service is what we aim to do and what Skype for Business provides," he said.

Ash Patel, director of business transformation at Cobweb Solutions, said the decision to ditch the Lync brand in favour of Skype made sense.

We believe Skype for Business will open up new powerful, business-to-business and business-to consumer connectivity and collaboration.
Giovanni MezgecMicrosoft

"Skype is much more well known and Microsoft can build on this strength to drive awareness of unified communications in business," he said.

Patel said the launch of Skype for Business alongside other unified communications products coming to market would make 2015 the year companies take unified communications seriously.

"It is employees who may initially drive this as they increasingly demand flexible and remote working, pushing the company to find the right solution to support them," he said.

It is this familiarity with consumer applications that's driving enterprise communications and collaboration, according to Chris Nunn, head of architecture and collaboration solutions for Dimension Data.

"Microsoft renamed Lync as Skype for Business because of the familiarity of Skype. The view is that the online social world and business world are merging, with little separation. People want to be comfortable with applications they can use at home and in the workspace," he said.

But Dries Plasman, Voxbone's vice-president of marketing and product management, said Microsoft's strategy of integrating enterprise's voice with Office 365 was confusing. 

"Hosting Lync as part of Office 365 may not be the winning cloud communications service," said Plasman. "However, this may not be a problem as increasingly more cloud communications providers are building their service on top of Microsoft."

Increasing use of video

Video usage is also expected to increase in the next three to five years, according to Vishy Gopalakrishnan, AT&T product manager of unified communications and collaboration.

"The barrier to broad video adoption is still there. But it will be very different in the future. In five years, the line between video and business applications is expected to be completely blurred and integrated," Gopalakrishnan said.

Cisco's McLaughlin said with high-definition video now available at a lower cost, distance is no longer an obstacle and high-quality interactions are possible regardless of an employee's location.

Read more on Unified communications