UC – Unified Communications – must be nowadays one of the most misunderstood and vague technological terms in the market. It’s an old term and it has meant many different thing during the years. From technological point of view it typically includes an instant messenger, presence, voice, video and web conferencing under one user interface. Microsoft Lync is a typical example these days.
We may also see UC on a more abstract level: it’s a way to deliver information device- and solution-independently. Then some other things such as e-mail, text messages, Facebook, LinkedIn and location get in the mix. When we talk about communication we mostly talk about communications devices and applications. When we send e-mail, for example, we expect to get an answer using e-mail, not as a Facebook message. If we “Skype” instant messages, we again expect to get the answer in the same format using the same service. Tweeters tweet with Twitter. And so on. We have kind of locked our mindsets to certain devices, protocols and services.
What has been forgotten, or been too difficult to make happen, is the fact that the sender or receiver of a message doesn’t really care about how the message reaches its destination, or through which devices, applications, networks, etc. The only thing that matters is that when you want to tell your colleague “The customer has arrived, hurry up!”, (s)he will receive it by whatever means – and reply to it somehow. Then the system needs to know how to best connect the two people at the moment, and then use those information channels and services to deliver the messages. A Facebook message is impossible if the receiver doesn’t use Facebook. Calling someone is useless if that person can’t answer to your call. And so on. But most of us can be reached by some ways most of the time. For example, your instant message could automatically turn into a text message when the system sees that it’s the only service your colleague has active at the moment. Today, when traditional ways of communication such as e-mail and telephone are becoming obsolete for more and more people, smart co-operation between messaging technologies is becoming crucial.
Apple is one of the forerunners here, since its own sandbox of services doesn’t really care about what is an instant message, what is a text message, what is an e-mail, etc. It’s more and more just communication. It’s about messages, not technology. Also, for example, Twitter and Facebook can communicate pretty well with each other – and why not? In the end, only the message and its delivery are important. Not technologies or artificial limitations between messaging formats and channels.
A smart future UC solution can creatively combine instant messages, text messages, video, sound, everything – depending the situation, availability and devices used. This is quite a different approach from the traditional “Let’s Skype tonight” –approach tied to particular technologies, even if they might share a common user interface with other channels. We’re talking about message-centric point-of-view instead of technology-centric.
Why doesn’t the world already work like this? The reasons are both technological and commercial. Although, for example, Facebook and Twitter are used with all kinds of devices, and generally work anywhere, the so-called “sandboxes” of different manufacturers are much harder to connect to each other in a sensible way (or at all). Apple, Microsoft, Google and others always try to create their own ecosystems (“sandboxes”) which again try to tie their users as closely as possible to that ecosystem – not to those of their competitors’. It probably wasn’t, for example, impossible at all to make Microsoft’s Skype and Apple’s Facetime talk to each other well enough. But.
That kind of interoperability, as useful as it would be for us end-users, doesn’t serve the goals of those brands. You may say “I want to have an open marriage with Microsoft, Apple, Google and everyone! I want to message to anyone, since all my friends use different systems!” But you will be ignored, since those brands would reply: “No, thou shalt only be faithful to me! No one else!”
There are some slight exceptions, like ever-so-disruptive Google and lots of smaller companies who have tried to make UC possible in instant messaging, VoIP and video messaging solutions especially on the mobile side of things. But more about that in the next part of the story!