In my last post, I talked about the changing nature of communications has been a drag on UC adoption, and to a lesser extent VoIP. The main idea here is the fact that these technologies represent fundamental shifts away from telephony as we have known it for as long as we can remember. We all have a high comfort level with legacy telephony, and the more these notions are challenged, the greater the chance for push-back.
My analysis was built around an analogy with American ideals of liberty and good government through democracy. While those “truths” have long been upheld as being “self-evident,” they are certainly being tested in the current political climate. For all kinds of reasons, the America most of us grew up with seems as if from another time, and if anyone can explain to the rest of us how we got here from there, I’ll be the first in line to help spread the news.
America’s ills are not my focus here, but I find the parallels with communications both timely and compelling. I’ve already talked about how VoIP has challenged some of TDM’s established conventions, and how UC takes things a few steps further. I also distinguished between how some changes come gradually, while other are more abrupt, and regarding VoIP, the history has mostly been about the former.
VoIP’s innovation dilemma
Although UC has been slow to gain traction, it holds more potential for abrupt change, and brings me to the notion of why innovation is so important. Recall that with TDM, there has been no innovation to speak of for decades. Combined with various market dynamics that were undergoing much-needed change at the time in telecom, conditions were ripe for the innovations that came with VoIP. Initially, VoIP posed a revolutionary threat to the status quo based on its potential to obliterate the TDM status quo.
Many other factors intervened, however, and in time, VoIP ended up being more of a nuisance to the telcos rather the new world order. Since then, VoIP has settled into the slow and steady enabler of change. This is a scenario the market seems more willing to live with, and interestingly the pace is being set by the incumbents – not the interlopers. What does this mean? Well, first it means that VoIP will be adopted at a pace that suits those with the most to lose. The VoIP players simply don’t have enough market power to drive the agenda, which means the process will be evolutionary, not revolutionary.
By extension, there’s a second implication that has to do with holding on to what you’ve always had and believed in. Since the incumbents are largely moving to VoIP on their own terms, they have chosen to continue not innovating with TDM. Legacy telephony may be the gold standard for quality, but there is always room for improvement.
If the incumbents really wanted to crush VoIP, they would have jump-started R&D and started innovating again to keep pace and maintain its perceived value with subscribers. Once it became clear that their fears about VoIP wiping out TDM were wildly overstated, they could rest on their long-in-the-tooth R&D laurels and focus energy instead on creating barriers to entry. This tactic ultimately serves their interests more than subscribers, as the focus shifts from adding value to killing the competition.
There is more to the VoIP story than this, and I’m oversimplifying things in order to make the main point. The innovations around VoIP gave it a point of entry into telecom, but adoption has been slow because the status quo isn’t broken – and wasn’t broken by the early VoIP players. Eventually, VoIP will be the status quo, but the scale of evolution here is very large and we have a long way to go yet.
UC’s innovation imperative
The dilemma above for VoIP lies in the fact that no matter how much new innovation it can deliver, the attachment to TDM remains strong. We all know the trend is totally IP, but the installed base is still mostly legacy, and the organic rates of change to replace these systems are quite low. This is a big reason why VoIP’s ascendancy is taking so long in the business space.
UC, however, is entirely different, especially since there is no precedent or gold standard to compare it against. In other words, there are no rules to break or sacred cows to replace, and it’s akin to giving an artist a blank slate and telling him/her to simply create.
While this offers up unlimited possibilities for UC to be anything you want it to be, too much choice can actually be a bad thing. I’ve written extensively about how UC’s amorphous nature makes the value proposition difficult to define, and from there, to actually resonate with business decision-makers. In my last post, I talked about how UC is much further removed from legacy telephony than VoIP, which makes it hard for businesses to grasp the concept. As mentioned, our familiarity and comfort level with legacy telephony is very high, and it’s going to take something special for that to happen with UC.
This brings me to the issue of innovation. Since the UC story is constantly evolving, it will never reach critical mass following VoIP evolutionary path. I talked earlier about the other way forward – being revolutionary, or in softer parlance, disruptive. From my perspective, this means UC vendors have to do a better job of bringing UC to the market – the opposite path of trying to bring the market to UC will take too long. I’m not advocating a violent coup, but more the case of presenting an entirely new experience and set of benefits that is impossible to resist. Remember, UC has no precedent, so the opportunity is there to invent this and totally change the thinking among business decision-makers.
You may say this is an impossible task, but here, there is precedent. Just think about the successes Apple has had, or even the early days of RIM. Game-changers don’t come around often, but these are clear examples of companies creating markets where nothing existed before. When innovation works on this level – rather than tweaking things we’ve been doing for years, such as with VoIP – that’s when major disruption happens.
There’s no way to predict if or when that will happen for UC, but I have a bigger message to leave you with. UC is already loaded with innovation, but perhaps not in a way yet that moves businesses to eagerly adopt. That’s actually ok, because the concept is still new, and both buyers and sellers are trying to find the right formula. This means you should expect to see even more innovation to address that gap, and WebRTC may be one of those game-changers that re-shapes the UC value proposition into something with immediate appeal.
My main point is that innovation is happening in many areas, and a lot of it will be disruptive, rather than incremental fine-tuning. Along with WebRTC, other similar examples include mobile UC platforms, OTT offerings from non-traditional operators, and UC-as-a-Service based on offerings that are 100% cloud-based.
As such, if you thought your concept of communications today is distant from the legacy telephony model you’ve known for so long, it’s going to be even further removed once these shifts take hold. Not only that, but they’re happening much faster today, and that means you’ll need to be agile in addition to being receptive to these innovations. Disruption means doing things differently, and often discarding what’s already there. Not every business rolls this way, but when the UC value proposition hits the right notes, this will be a necessary condition for success.
VoIP asks very little in terms of accommodation from your business, but when UC incorporates these types of innovations, a lot more adaptation will be required. This won’t be easy, but the payoff can be much greater – otherwise, there wouldn’t be much incentive for innovation to continue in this space. So, are you thinking of UC in terms of evolution or revolution? I think that largely depends on how much you see innovation as a force for success in your business.