Thinking about the OCS release yesterday and finally figured out what the heck is bugging me so much. Tell me what you think about this.
I love communications. I've tracked VoIP now for 15 years when it was still called "computer telephony". I've got five IM accounts and a buddy list that spans over 200 contacts. I run with two cell phones, three phone lines in my office and I anguish over my lack of video, (which I have immediate plans to remedy.)
So you would think I would agree with Mr. Gates when he told eWeek that "A fundamental reason that communicating is still so complex is the fact that the way we communicate is still bound by devices. In the office, we use a work phone with one number. Then we ask people to call us back on a mobile device using another number when we are on the go, or reach us on our home phone with yet another number."
I don't. Communications aren't all that more complex because my modalities aren't completely integrated. Yes, I and the rest of us do need to manage multiple devices, but for the most part that's done pretty easily. Yes, there's some overhead to it and yes there's some pain, but to say that this is a "fundamental reason why communications is so complex" strikes me more as an excuse a vendor will make for pursuing a potential market opportunity.
Microsoft and the rest of the communications industry needs us to believe that the pain of managing multiple devices is so great that we need to unify our communications. After all they're trying to sell product and integrating multiple modalities is a problem that can be readily solved.
Yet while it's a message the speaks to me (hence my undying interest in the area) I have to admit: managing multiple modalities isn't that hard. Think of it. Today, most of us can give out our cell number and be in contact all of the time. If that's too personal then configure call forwarding rules on your phone to direct calls to your cell. If your cell is like most then you can receive IMs on it already and everyone knows about getting their email on their cell phones.
Fact is that the problems of unifying communications is one that's so 20th century. Most us have gradually acclimated ourselves to switching between IM, voice, video etc. etc. Just watch any teenager navigate IM and you understand that tomorrow's communicators were bred with a Blackberry not rattle. Bringing further coherence to the communications order is nice, but it's hardly critical for most of us.
What's far more important is helping people improve the content of their exchanges. If I couldn't persuade you before to buy my product then Office Communications Server 2007 won't help me sell it any more effectively. If I didn't know the question to ask in a meeting then OCS (or Cisco's Unified Communications Manager or Avaya's Communication Manager) isn't going to help me figure that out.
A sort of AI brain that sits alongside me or in place of me would be super, but that's a bit ambitious. There are other tools that can enable me to communicate more effectively. The KishKish Lie Detector for Skype is a rough example. It performs voice stress analysis to let you know if the other person is lying or not (granted with questionable results). Within the corporate setting, bringing some of the tools used in contact centers into the rest of the organization would help along these lines.
It's a big area and one that needs a lot of work, the kind of work that Microsoft could provide. One thing though is clear to me. The real challenge of communication today lies in saying and doing the right thing not in finding ways for us to make fools of ourselves faster.