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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Initial thoughts on Enterprise Connect #EC15 & WebRTC

I'm in Orlando at the big Enterprise Connect conference and trade-show, covering business communications, especially for large corporations and government. Its main focus is on unified/disunified communications, collaboration, and contact centres / CRM. Yesterday was the WebRTC "conference-in-a-conference" and today is the main session with kickoff keynotes (and various briefings), although yesterday had some general plenary panels too.

Note: this was written on March 17th 2014, so "yesterday" refers to the 16th
While I'm here mostly as I was invited to speak on a WebRTC panel, it's interesting for me to compare and contrast EC with many of the more telecom operator-centric events that I go to, on a more general level.

The first thing is that there seems to be much more pragmatism and individuality among enterprises than among telcos - they are focused on solving their specific problems, in their industries and specific geographic regions. There is much less need for businesses to feel the need for "industry-wide" solutions and standards, and more willingness to experiment and customise.There is a sense that most big companies will have their own in-house software development teams, as well as relying on systems integrators, consultants and a variety of vendors, cloud platforms and other systems. Few businesses have cookie-cutter communications functions or apps, even if the ultimate technology building blocks (eg SIP, HTTP) are the same.

The second thing is that there is much more of a sense that the "end-user" - whether an employee, an external partner, or a customer, is in a position of choice and control. While there is a slight wistful feeling that everything used to be much simpler when there was just a phone, fax and email, there is also a sense of excitement that new developments lead to improved productivity and better engagement. 

There's no disparaging reference to "OTTs" (or spiteful over-defensive recourse to regulators), merely a pressure on suppliers to come up with better, cooler communications systems that fit employees' or customers' needs. While security and compliance are important for many, so is customisation and empowerment. I hear phrases like "use the best tool for the job" a lot, or "multi-channel", as well as BYOD, cloud services and "customer journey". There's a recognition that employees or customers will migrate to whatever application or interface mechanism best suits them - and it's up to the enterprise and its suppliers to get it right, or give developers the right APIs so they can instead.

The third thing is that enterprise communications vendors - some of them the same companies that also sell to telcos - have a much greater awareness of user-interface design, the need to fit their products around users' purpose and workflow, web/app integration, and the need for optimised functionality. Cisco, Microsoft, Avaya, Google, Unify and a whole host of others are at pains to show how slick their mobile apps are, or their ability to allow business processes to be adapted with visual tools. The word "workflow" is uttered 10x more than I'd ever hear in a telecom context.

Other things:
  • I see the word "context" everywhere too. This is definitely the epicentre of the Contextual Communications trend I've been mentioning - and I can see it evolving further with the use of WebRTC, sensors, big data analytics and so on. Compared to the "any colour you like as long as it's a phone call" mentality of telecoms, it's refreshing. So much for VoLTE being "innovative". Aspect and Altocloud are among those doing context-based WebRTC applications for contact centres.
  • Cloud is everywhere. That's not really news, but it is striking.
  • Microsoft Lync (now clunkily renamed Skype for Business) is everywhere too. How it supports ORTC/WebRTC will be critical in future - although as every competitor has a full API of some sort, I'd be surprised if S4B doesn't as well.
  • Messaging and timelines are everywhere. All the new collaboration tools look like they're heavily influenced by Facebook, Twitter and the like. This is good. 
  • Apart from Mitel (which just acquired Mavenir), nobody seems bothered by the idea of integrating with telco applications, VoLTE or (I'm joking here) RCS. I asked a major telco's business videoconferencing unit representative if they'd be using ViLTE/IR.94 in future, and he didn't appear to have heard the term before.
WebRTC is also heavily represented, but often as a means to an end: an enabler or option, rather than a holy grail of some sort. That said, it's telling that the keynotes all now assume that everyone knows what WebRTC is, rather than introducing it as "a new technology for putting comms into your browser" as is still common at other events. It's also clear that WebRTC is not just "production-ready" but is also in polished, real products being bought and used in anger.

Quite a lot of new products are noticeably WebRTC-based, such as collaboration solutions like Unify Circuit and Cisco Spark (the renamed Project Squared) and the OnAvaya cloud contact-centre solution hosted on the Google Cloud (and with Chromebook integration).  That said, most of these also have other non-WebRTC options, either for legacy browsers, or where a better set of functions can be delivered via native applications. 

The Avaya/Google collaboration potentially points to really rich contextual customer-service features in future, depending on how much analytical and insight horsepower Google can bring to bear. Think about routing to different agents, using different scripts, plus video and other features, where the caller is using Android or logged into their Google account.
Various WebRTC-based PaaS and SDK providers are present here as well - Twilio, CafeX, GenBand Kandy have booths, and I've bumped into people from Temasys and Respoke (Digium) as well, while Avaya has an SDK to video-enable customer-service apps too. Interestingly, Vidyo is touting its own video-enablement  SDK, which is not WebRTC-based, although it is working with Google to get SVC capability working on the VP9 codec.

There's also a lot of interest specifically in mobile apps with embedded video-calling for customer service. Avaya demo'd a golf-related commerce app, which it said it said it had added video to in just 2 days with a single engineer. Other vendors also touted their ware for app-embedded video, and I was taken out for an evening by a major US enterprise, to discuss how they could enhance their customers' experience with something similar.

But perhaps the most eye-opening bit was the presentation by a number of enterprises - Medweb, UTHealth [University of Texas] and American Express - about existing, long-standing WebRTC deployments and their learnings from their use and deployment. Some are using it to improve vanilla videoconferencing, but others are integrating it into apps and workflows much more extensively. Medweb has a telemedicine kit which can give a video consultation while streaming output from a medical device (eg a USB-plugged ultrasound scanner) over WebRTC datachannel.

The bottom line: enterprise retains its lead in WebRTC in terms of sophistication of use-cases. While there's various cool WebRTC consumer apps - as well as big guns like Snapchat - it's really the corporate uses that are the state of the art. Contact centre use of WebRTC is nothing new, but it's definitely the turn of UC/collaboration to take the stage at the moment, with app-integration and workflows the next in line.

In fact, I'm starting to suspect that one of the main near-term opportunities for telcos with WebRTC is within their internal IT and communications infrastructure, rather than new subscriber services. At MWC there was an announcement of a WebRTC-powered video contact centre for operators, and at EC the lead customer on stage for Cisco Spark collaboration was from Telstra.

Note: Disruptive Analysis' research and forecasts on WebRTC include detailed coverage of enterprise use-cases, as well as telecoms and consumer web. For more details on the report click here or message me if you are interested in private consultations and advisory services.

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