Microsoft announced at VoiceCon Orlando their next generation hardware to speed the replacement of the venerable old Public Branch Exchange (PBX) units that are at the heart of corporate collaboration - the telephone system.
I recently had the opportunity to be walked through a hands on look at the vast next generation Microsoft productivity 2010 ecosphere, Office, Sharepoint, Exchange and so on, in Microsoft's labs so I could see how everything hangs together. We spent several hours navigating through the constellation of products and I have to say I was impressed by how seamless the shiny next generation Microsoft looks.
You may be reading this on a PC running the betas of their products, available here and be familiar with the desktop aspects of the experience, but VOIP and telephony are less visibly rapidly becoming a seamless part of collaboration, hence the naming of the PBX replacement 'Office Communications Server'.
Gurdeep Singh Pall (Msft Corporate Vice President, Unified Communications Group) blogged
...Today’s work-style doesn’t lend itself to a fixed place – or a fixed phone. Already, the average worker spends less than 40 percent of his or her workday at their desk. Green initiatives, tele-work, outsourcing and streamlined facilities management have accelerated this trend, which is expected to continue in the years ahead. The laptop PC and the mobile phone are the de-facto devices for information workers. We are working where we want, which means communications must be able to find us, wherever we are, rather than the other way around. Even in this nomadic world a mobile phone is not sufficient – neither is it rich enough for collaborative work, nor are companies willing to reimburse upwards of $600 a year per employee for their mobile bill. That’s where the richness and portability of a multipurpose PC and the use of the economical and ubiquitous Internet comes in.
Wifi, 3g phones and computers are rapidly merging, and the copper land line world is now firmly in the rear view mirror. As my previous post about AT&T's 3G services issues outlined there are still major problems with infrastructure to support 'communications being able to find us, wherever we are,' but we are accelerating in that direction.
Microsoft's Wave 14 is looking very formidable, hanging together extremely well - at least in a Microsoft Lab - and is basically the future for those companies with .net foundations and especially those who have all you can eat enterprise licenses. If you could rip and replace, or those legacy application exceptions and connections don't rear their ugly heads, the future is looking as slick and exciting as the Cisco video from last year at the top of this post.
The battleground for large scale collaboration technologies is essentially centered around Unified Communications, Structured Data (enterprise content management in all its flavors and findability - or lack of it) and the sharing of unstructured tacit knowledge (knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it).
IBM spent millions promoting the idea of collaboration equaling unified communications earlier this decade, Cisco are currently doing a fine job of global advertising on a broader scale (since they own the plumbing all this collaboration goes through they sit pretty however the game plays out) and I expect there will be a huge wave of Microsoft 'power of collaboration' style advertising at the peak of Wave 14.
Interestingly last fall the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in San Francisco shared the Moscone Center with VoiceCon: two separate conferences with virtually no collaboration, collusion or communication between the two groups. As an Enterprise 2.0 conference advisory board member heavily involved with organizing and shaping the direction of that conference (we're working hard on the agenda for the June/Boston edition right now) I made an effort to spend time with the VoiceCon attendees to find inflection points.
The reality I saw was the inhabitants of two very different planets in the broad collaboration universe finding very little common ground. Originally called PBX, VoiceCon is being renamed Enterprise Connect 'to reflect the multi-faceted, multi-media communications world in which we all live' for future events.
The VoiceCon/Enterprise Connect attendee pedigree is essentially around the (increasingly complex) plumbing, which used to be a honking great company telephone exchange but now encompasses products such as Microsoft's new 'Office Communications Server, with hooks into Microsoft's many other 'Wave 14' internet data and software products.
The Enterprise 2.0 attendees are, broadly speaking, looking for ways to be more efficient operationally and are often focused on transcending current IT limitations, focusing on how technology "affects businesses and business as a whole" to quote leading light Andrew McAfee. They've often experienced concomitant growth of bureaucracy and inefficiency due to large scale infrastructure imposition: email overload, lakes of unfindable documents are frequent symptoms. A huge market for technology point solutions from gossamer weight to large scale platforms hopes to cater to these needs.
Tackling the lowest common denominator thinking around systems historically rooted in Victorian telephone exchanges, filing cabinets full of documents and postal delivery paradigms is being attacked from two completely different angles by these two groups.
Vendor Cisco arguably have the advantage of newness and lack of legacy in both areas: unencumbered by document legacy issues they are also arguably a long-term disruptor and driver of combined voice/video communications, occupying the high ground with admittedly currently highly priced Telepresence.
Cisco's 'Intercompany Media Engine' (corny Cisco video here) was announced at VoiceCon along with their newly acquired Tandberg 'Advanced Media Gateway' HD communications which is 'the first and only solution that seamlessly enables millions of Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 R2 users to connect and collaborate in high-definition (HD) with other standards-based video and telepresence users'.
The macro scale enterprise collaboration market is starting to really hot up. Lines are blurring not only between landline, VOIP and video but also increasingly between formally siloed offline document creation, manipulation and storage products and net based seamless interoperability between all of the above.
The real challenge of course is identifying how to strategize for achievable business goals around these new paradigms and how to get those working with new technologies to understand them and use them efficiently.