UC Won’t Follow WiFi’s Path

At his No Jitter blog, Zeus Kerravala recounts a panel discussion he co-moderated yesterday at VoiceCon.

The panel — ostensibly convened to discuss “next-generation communications architectures” — comprised representatives from most of the industry’s heavyweights, including Cisco, Microsoft, Avaya, HP, IBM, and Polycom. While the vendor representatives seemed initially in agreement regarding how communication architectures are shifting away from vertical integration into distinct layers, they didn’t take long to eschew common cause in favor of recrimination and one-upmanship.

That’s the nature of the beast, of course. I’ve been on these sorts of panels, and I know that everybody there has an agenda that involves promoting his or her company’s products and vision, often in contradistinction to those of your counterparts. Salesmanship never sleeps, especially when it’s on a dais. Away from the panels, too, each vendor continually looks for an edge over its rivals.

Later in his blog post, Kerravala wonders why unified communications can’t be like WiFi, where everything just works together and interoperability between and among different vendors’ products isn’t a problem for customers.

Kerravala cites two main reasons why UC isn’t like WiFi. First, he says, vendors have trouble agreeing on common standards. In Kerravala’s words: “Everyone wants their standard to become the industry standard.” He’s absolutely right.

Second, he argues, WiFi-scale standardization changes the economics of the industry. That’s true, too. As he points out, standardization and commoditization of WiFi resulted in low-cost embedding of the technology in nearly anything and everything, changing the business models of infrastructure vendors in the process.

On that point, we should mention that the major vendors who drove WiFi standardization clearly foresaw how commoditization would eviscerate profit margins on underlying infrastructure. They knew what they were doing, and they went into it with eyes wide open.

They did it because they knew the value of the applications and content WiFi unleashed would create new business opportunities and drive growth in adjacent markets that were of compelling interest to them. Standardized WiFi paved the way for new market opportunities — including increased sales of preexisting and future products — and that’s why the industry movers and shakers got behind the standards effort. In more ways than one, WiFi was a foundation technology.

Can the same be said for UC? That’s the crux of the matter, because if UC is more a market end rather than a means to manifold other market ends, vendors have limited motivation to standardize.

Another difference between WiFi and UC is that the former clearly sits at the bottom of the OSI protocol stack whereas UC, in its breadth and depth, ranges all the way up the stack. Generally, standardization occurs more readily at the bottom of the stack, starting at the PHY and MAC layers, and gets more difficult at the higher layers, especially at the application layer, where differentiation and proprietary advantage often confer great rewards.

In all likelihood, UC always will be more proprietary in design and implementation than WiFi. The two are too dissimilar in their technological and market characteristics to share similar fates.

Vendors refrain from standardizing UC products and technologies because they have neither the desire nor the need to do so. The customers, the buying community, want standardization, which would lower solution costs and result in interoperability and product interchangeability; but the vendors don’t want to go there, for obvious reasons.

UC and collaboration looks more like an application or application service to me than like an 802.11 IEEE networking standard. It’s not so much a cornerstone or foundation for other markets and services as it is an end in and of itself. As such, vendors contesting the space will continue to seek proprietary advantage and resist homogenized standardization.

Despite vendor pieties and platitudes on interoperability and openness, customers shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for UC purveyors to make buying decisions cheaper and easier.

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