Friday, March 10, 2017

Team Collaboration

As enterprises increasingly hire talent globally, building high-performance global teams has become a critical success factor. Traditional collaboration tools (email, file sharing, web conferencing, etc.) are struggling to meet the rapidly evolving requirements for seamless virtual team interaction.

A new generation of team collaboration tools has emerged since early 2014. The leading function in these new tools is the persistent conversation space (referred to as “channel” or “room”) followed by file sharing and app / bot libraries (used for example for integrations with other tools). Audio / video communication is sometimes embedded and sometimes provided via integration with another service provider.

The emerging Team Collaboration market segment is a result of the collision of two trends:

1) The rise of persistent collaboration spaces to support Agile and DevOps

The software development community uses a lot of tools (mostly in the Cloud) that make Agile software development easier: tools for tracking bugs and features (like Jira), tools for code management (like GitHub and Bitbucket), etc. Global development and operations (DevOps) teams require a persistent collaboration environment, well integrated with development tools. Slack, HipChat, and other tools are trying to meet the requirement. Since voice and video can be quite disruptive, the focus is on persistent messaging (some say “persistent chat”). Deep integration with software development tools is essential.

While the concept emerged in software development, it is transferable to other types of teams and we are already seeing options for Marketing, Creative, Project Management, etc. as well as integrations with business applications required for such teams to successfully collaborate.   

2) The rise of messaging in the UCC space

Enterprise Unified Communication shifted its focus from voice to video (video conferencing) and then to content sharing (web conferencing) in pursuit of better collaboration / higher employee productivity. The latest shift is happening right now and is about elevating messaging to a primary collaboration mode. The trend probably started first when Microsoft based Lync predecessor LCS on instant messaging and presence (rather than on email, voice, or video) but the reason for that radical shift today is the new messaging wave that is coming from the consumer space, where free messaging mobile applications led to service providers cutting the cost for SMS, and to everybody messaging everybody all the time. Employees are increasingly bringing their consumer messaging habits into the enterprise and are increasingly using messaging apps like Wechat, Whatsapp, and Facebook Messenger for business purposes…

The enterprises’ need for more control over security and account administration led to UC vendors developing messaging-focused team collaboration tools such as Cisco Spark, Microsoft Teams, Unify Circuit, and Alcatel-Lucent Rainbow. While messaging is the key functionality is the persistent collaboration spaces, UC vendors leveraged their know-how in voice and video and integrated these functions into the team collaboration tools. They also built bridges to existing (“legacy”) applications to guarantee customer investment protection and are working on customer migration stories.

Integrations with software development tools and business applications are still a challenge for the UC industry and there is considerable investment to partner / build integrations and close the gap.   

Conclusion

Enterprises are looking for ways to leverage team collaboration tools without adding complexity to their already complex collaboration environments. The market is very new and quite fragmented, with each vendor covering certain use cases a little bit better than the rest. In general, UC vendors are providing better integrations with their UC stacks while newcomers focus on developing rich integration capabilities with development tools and business applications.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Evolution of the Collaboration Room Experience


I must admit I neglected the Video Networker blog over the past 3 years. I started a new job in 2013 and the scope was and still is much broader than video. I had many interesting topics to write about but they did not fit the Video Networker label, so I did not post. Over time I assumed that Video Network had faded away, so imagine my surprise when I checked the blog activity earlier today and realized that a lot of people still go to Video Networker for information. Most visitors come from Germany, Austria, and Saudi Arabia.

I thought about it again and expanding the scope of the blog would actually be very natural. Over the past 3 years video was absorbed in all sorts of collaboration tools while Unified Communications gradually became part of the broader Digital Workplace.  

The virtual meeting experience has improved a lot. Most meetings today require some kind of content sharing, and web conferencing has become the default way for starting a meeting. Today, I rarely get a meeting invitation without a link to a virtual meeting room.

Conferencing rooms however have not kept up. Many have only a speaker phone in the middle of the table; selected few have video conferencing systems. Bridging between video conferencing and web conferencing is still not easy. Vendors that have both types of solutions are gradually converging web conferencing rooms with video conferencing rooms but there is still work to be done on the user interface and the affordability of such solutions.  

Web conferencing vendors have tried addressing collaboration rooms by offering endpoints or rather kits to build endpoints that seamlessly connect to the web conferencing solution. But we all know that a room is very different from a screen of a desktop or a mobile device. It has multiple walls, and there are usually multiple people involved. Acoustics and view angles play a major role in a great collaboration room experience. In addition, while web conferencing and video conferencing do a good job sharing content (screens or applications), they have not been successful in enabling true collaborative work on documents, images, video clips, etc.

The industry is therefore working on alternative next-generation collaboration solutions. True collaboration in a room requires a lot of space (surface) and new ways to manipulate content. Larger monitors at affordable prices deliver the additional space (surface), and content and live video can be distributed over multiple monitors hanging on different walls, thus fully leveraging the room. Touch technology allows interacting with large screens in the same way we interact with mobile devices. So the key remaining problem is how to bring the ocean of data that we have today into the collaboration room. It is not about PowerPoint presentations and spreadsheets anymore but rather about live web pages, video feeds, and real-time analytics. Once the data is available in the room, new collaboration room technology allows for creation of new assets, white boarding, brainstorming, and for storing the results from the collaboration session, so that the next meetings can continue from where the previous meeting ended.

In the meantime, the virtual meeting camp has moved one step further and targets now continuous collaboration in and between meetings. A new generation of team collaboration tools allows for persistent collaboration via group chat and document collaboration that can start long before the first meeting and continue uninterrupted between meetings.    

And then, there are considerations about cost and investment protection. Making virtual meetings available to let’s say 100,000 enterprise users means getting 100k subscriptions from the vendor / service provider. As the technology evolves, the service changes but the cost for the enterprise remains predictable. By contrast, upgrading several thousands of conference rooms in a large enterprise is a big capital expense. There is also uncertainly about the lifespan of new technologies.

There are good reasons to think hard before making a decision on collaboration room investments, and I will continue tracking this topic.   

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

EC13 Part 4: Redefining The Conference Room Experience

The new conference room experience is still a work in progress, and the focus is shifting from video to content sharing and annotation.

This is the last in a four-part series covering some of the major trends I saw at Enterprise Connect Orlando. Friday I covered Virtualization, Monday was Cloud Services, and yesterday Mobility

Redefining the conference room experience

Video conferencing vendors have been trying to extend the video conference room experience to desktop and mobile devices for a while, and competed in this realm on video quality. Now Microsoft is taking the opposite approach: extending the desktop/mobile Lync experience to conference room. The user experience in the room is driven by the capabilities of desktop and mobile video, not the other way around.

The new approach changes the implementation priorities: ease of use is the king (the main goal is to eliminate the 5-10-minute delay of the typical video meeting due to technical issues); content sharing and whiteboarding/annotation are the most important parts of the meeting, while video quality is far lower on the requirement list. For the first time, Microsoft does not depend on third-parties for providing multipoint video: Lync 2013 supports H.264 SVC, and the Microsoft AVMCU enables multipoint video calls.

By releasing its Lync Room specification to 4 partners--Crestron, LifeSize, Polycom, and SMART--Microsoft is essentially doing a trial of its Lync Room concept. The specification is not publically available but the key requirements can be recognized in the first demos--by SMART and Crestron--at Enterprise Connect.  Addressing the trends towards smaller conference rooms, wide angle cameras are required to capture people sitting close to screen/whiteboard. Based on the notion that mechanical noises distract meeting participants, Lync Rooms use digital (not mechanical) Pan/Tilt/Zoom (PTZ) cameras. Audio elements--speakers, microphones, and stereo/mono modes--are also defined, and so is the user interface for starting a meeting. The logical split of the control functions is that meeting controls are on a small control tablet while whiteboarding/annotation actions are on the large touch screen.

From the pack, SMART came to EC best prepared with its own 109-degree camera design, multiple models--small for 6 people, medium for 12, and large for 16--and support of one or two screens. SMART leveraged its experience with whiteboarding technology to differentiate. Although the video quality was not impressive (network issues, as usual), the collaboration capabilities were superb.

Crestron opted for using an off-the-shelf Logitech camera and focused on the room control experience to differentiate its Lync Room solution--a logical approach based on Crestron's background in room control. One touch of the Crestron control unit lets users switch seamlessly between "Room Control" mode and "Lync Room Collaboration" mode.

Polycom has invested a lot in interoperability with Microsoft, including support of the Microsoft RTV video codec that enables best possible quality between older Lync clients and video endpoints. Polycom also licensed its H.264 SVC implementation to Microsoft and all other UCIF members willing to use it, a move designed to create a critical mass behind one SVC flavor. But while having the best video quality between your portfolio and Lync is a tangible competitive advantage, the concern is about the overall lower importance of video in the Lync world, where content is truly the king.

While the Lync room designs are pragmatic and will improve the conferencing room experience, the cost for building rooms is still an issue, and many small companies are looking for solutions that are a little less perfect for a lot less money. Start-up Tely Labs is trying to make video collaboration more affordable and demonstrated telyHD Business Edition, which works with Tely's own simple infrastructure supporting up to 6-way video. Their telyHD Enterprise Edition was built in partnership with BlueJeans Network, and therefore allows connecting the majority of video endpoints out there. Trying to find a market segment between free clients and $10-20K rooms, Tely has very attractive price point of $550 for the enterprise or business edition; this include camera and audio but not the cost of the video monitor.

Revolabs has developed a new generation of wideband wearable and on-table wireless microphones that improve the audio capture in conference rooms. The importance for audio in collaboration cannot be overstated, and Revolabs provides an excellent alternative to wired microphones.

Conclusion

The new conference room experience is still a work in progress, and the focus is shifting from video to content sharing and annotation. The cost of equipping conference room with video is also going down. Combined with cloud services, this will democratize video.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

EC13 Report Part 3: Mobility

Mobility for UC comes in many shapes. A soft client on iOS and Android is the entry ticket, but the sky is the limit after that.

This is the third in a four-part series covering some of the major trends I saw at Enterprise Connect Orlando. Friday I covered Virtualization, and yesterday Cloud Services; tomorrow's topic will be the Conference Room Experience.

Mobility

UC clients on mobile devices have quickly become the entry ticket to mobility. Every vendor I talked to--voice, video, or other--has soft client(s). iOS and Android are the preferred OS for smart phones and tablets, followed by Windows for laptops and a mention or two of BlackBerry. However, a good mobility story rarely stops at just mobility.

Extensions to the call processing software allow switching (or shifting) sessions across any number of devices associated with a user. Alcatel-Lucent's "rapid session shift" switches between mobile phone, wired phone, soft client, or a video endpoint from partner LifeSize. There is no auto detection, and the changeover is initiated by a push of a key or tap on a screen.

Thrupoint takes session management to an entirely different level. Their Session Broker--which originates from Ubiquity--allows applications to execute during session setup, and for example, to check permissions, apply policies, and re-route sessions to another location/device. Thrupoint therefore provides a scalable platform for mobility applications.

I came across several mobility servers that allow additional automation of the call handoff process and focus on the Wi-Fi/3G/4G/GSM roaming scenario. The idea is that when the user leaves Wi-Fi coverage, the call automatically switches to VoIP over 3G/4G. If the 3G/4G service deteriorates, the call automatically switches to basic TDM GSM voice.

Aastra demonstrated the Aastra Mobility Controller (AMC) from the acquisition of Munich-based Comdasys. The mobility server is offered with the Aastra's MX-1 system (acquired from Ericsson) or as as standalone product with third-party systems.

ShoreTel has fully integrated the mobility server from the Agito acquisition, and offers it with ShoreTel IP Phone System or as a standalone product in third-party environments.

Conclusion

Mobility comes in many shapes. A soft client on iOS and Android is the entry ticket, but the sky is the limit after that. Advanced mobility functions such as session shifting and session/call handoff may become important differentiators for vendors. Reliability is still an issue, since mobility touches on several networks, and network timers do not always work exactly as expected.

Monday, April 8, 2013

EC13 Report Part 2: Cloud Services


EC13 Report: Cloud ServicesVendors are rushing into creating cloud services to reach new customers--but there are concerns to address.
Vendors are rushing into creating cloud services to reach new customers--but there are concerns to address.

This is the second in a four-part series covering some of the major trends I saw at Enterprise Connect Orlando. On Friday I covered Virtualization; tomorrow's topic will be Mobility, and Wednesday's will be the Conference Room Experience.

Cloud Services

Cloud services are popping up everywhere, reflecting the lower barrier to entry for those who want to become a service provider. There are currently several hundred Managed Service Providers (MSPs) that provide voice and video conferencing services. The market is very fragmented and the barrier to entry is relatively low, so players are trying to differentiate themselves by supporting multiple vendors, solving interoperability issues, and gaining critical mass, In addition to AVI-SPL, I met with AGT, which differentiates itself through offering software-based MCU in the cloud and offering management of video endpoints.

More and more vendors across the industry are trying to make it even easier to become an MSP--by building infrastructure for running their applications in the cloud, and by encouraging their distributors to become MSPs and resell the service. As bonus, the vendors provide management tools so that the freshly baked MSPs can measure usage and charge end users for services month by month.

The cloud allows some traditional on-premise vendors to address very small customers that cannot really afford an on-premise solution. Interactive Intelligence announced its Communications as a Service (CaaS) offering called Small Center, targeting 10-50 agents--and promising unrestricted growth up to 5,000 agents without platform change. This is adding fresh competition to Five 9, a pure-play cloud call center offering.

On the video side, Magor is repositioning itself away from telepresence and towards being a visual communication infrastructure vendor. Its new Aerus cloud service leverages sophisticated routing algorithms to enable new collaboration models, away from the traditional "endpoints calling into the bridge" model.

Since these offerings rely on Internet best effort service, some industry analysts warn against it, while others embrace the Internet quality. Unified Office is taking a different approach, focusing on engineered quality for customers (small businesses with 5-75 employees) that need more than best-effort. Unified Office installs a TCN (Total Connect Now service) box on customer premise to measure QOS and analyze IP networking problems; then works with IP networking service providers to resolve issues. Unified Office also uses an open source SBC based on Asterisk that connects to multiple SIP trunking providers and routes calls based on network quality. This reminds me of the Least Cost Routing function in PBXs; however, Unified Office does not look at cost, just network quality.

The big question is "Why do vendors roll out their own cloud services?" One school of thought is that vendors waited for service providers to develop scalable services and since this did not happen, decided to try it themselves (although it is clear that running a service is very different from making products). Another school of thought is that it is just everyone in the industry looking for room for growth by experimenting with new business models, even risking competition with SP customers.

Finally, the term "hybrid cloud" was often used in conversations at Enterprise Connect, always with different meaning. Some picture "hybrid" as a media server on premise with application server in the cloud. Other imagine some services implemented in private cloud (essentially a hosted outsourced data center) while other come from the public cloud. BroadSoft's definition, for example, is having BroadWorks system in the SP data center while getting UC services from the BroadCloud.

Conclusion

Vendors are rushing into creating cloud services to reach new customers. Small enterprise companies will benefit the most, as cloud services would allow them to use platforms they cannot afford to install on premise. One concern is the best effort quality of the Internet that most cloud services rely on. The second concern is how well vendors will perform as service providers. The third concern is about vendors competing with their service provider customers.