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Monday, June 13, 2016

Microsoft / LinkedIn helps kill the phone number as a primary B2B identifier

I'll keep this focused, as there will be hundreds of articles dissecting the MS / LI acquisition that will no doubt cover most angles.

For me, the key element is that LinkedIn has one of the only "identity spaces" that allows people from different companies to connect. The two other most-popular ID types, which cover company-to-company communications, are phone numbers and email addresses. Unlike those, LinkedIn actually has a functioning searchable directory, with real names and mutual-connection "opt-in" model to reduce spam. It also follows people from job to job.

Other options are very minor - some business-people connect via Twitter's messaging function, some have industry-specific IM systems like Bloomberg & Symphony in finance, and some interact via channels on Slack and similar services niche collaboration platforms. 

Three other identities stand out - Google ID (used for HangOuts and a few strange folk on G+), Skype, and Lync/Skype for Business. Some business-people probably end up communicating via iMessage but that's usually triggered via an initial phone-number exchange, as is WhatsApp and pretty much all the other major mobile messaging services.

None of the other UC/UCaaS services from Cisco, Avaya, Unify, Mitel or Broadsoft-enabled operators really have their own inter-company addressing, directory and search/discovery function, although they can sometimes use specific federation techniques, or indeed integrate with Microsoft's Office365 and other systems.

If it can put the pieces together, Microsoft now has:
  • LinkedIn's real-name addressing
  • Outlook / Office365's ability to link email addresses to presence and Microsoft's own identity space
  • Skype IDs for both consumers and individual business-people
  • Phone numbers provided for SkypeIn and PSTN Calling in Skype4B
  • WebRTC/ORTC for "guest access"
  • Dynamics for CRM / sales automation
It is thus now the only company that can legitimately claim to control directories for both internal and external connections among business users, plus a fair number of consumers as well. It is already quite common for people to use LinkedIn as a surrogate contact database, when they cannot immediately find someone's phone number or remember their email address - especially when they move jobs.

(It should however be noted that LinkedIn tends to polarise opinion quite a lot - while it has a proportion of regular users who exploit it for networking, recruitment, groups and articles, it also has many members that have neglected profiles and limited active use. I'd been expecting LinkedIn to add realtime communications with WebRTC for some time but nothing has appeared - although it will be interesting to see if there's been anything behind the scenes that Microsoft will accelerate).

That has big implications for two groups:
  • Telcos will see the role of the phone-number diminish further in a B2B context, as it becomes ever-closer to being just a lowest common-denominator fallback option. Added to its diminishing scope for B2C (because of in-messaging chat, app notifications etc), this doesn't augur well for E.164's continued primacy
  • Cisco, Broadsoft and others need to think closely how to tie together inter- as well as intra-company connections. I'll be interested to see if Cisco tries to leverage its Apple relationship, or if the UCaaS platform-players try to lean on Google [Which has been cropping up regularly at events, pitching Android for Work]. We could also see attempts by competitors to federate their various cloud platforms - perhaps using something like Matrix.org as an intermediary.
This also puts the pressure on Facebook to step up with its long-promised enterprise offer, and means that any sign that Slack, HipChat or peers are gaining viral adoption will be greeted with enthusiasm (and perhaps acquisition offers). We will also see redoubled interest in industry-specific federated messaging in healthcare or finance or government verticals.

[There are also impacts on other companies like Salesforce in the CRM arena, but I'll leave that for others to discuss]

Of course, all this is contingent on Microsoft/LinkedIn gaining approval from competition authorities - and of course also assumes Microsoft can do a rather better job with integration than it managed with Skype in the first place.

But overall, this is hugely important - and has ramifications that extend across the business communications sphere, and may ultimately prove to be (another) nail in the coffin of the phone number & PSTN as the primary B2B identity-space.

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