Friday, April 19, 2024
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UC in a State of Transition

The TechPerspectives of David J. Danto

In the presentations I’ve given to people over the last two decades, I usually referred to Unified Communications (UC) as the only technology that has been “launching” for over twenty years.  It took just about that long for the promises of UC&C to actually come close to being delivered – and I’m using that word ‘close’ intentionally because even as far as we’ve come, we still have much more to do.

The promise of UC, in a nutshell, is to be able to communicate with anyone we’d want to from any device and from any location where we happen to be, with full access to our files and documents, and with the ability to use any modality of communications (an email, an instant message, a group message, an audio call, a video call) and with it allowing for any desired escalation between each modality.

UC Interrupted

Just yesterday I (a pretty fluent UC expert) was on my personal PC messaging with one of the leading industry analysts, and as we tried to exchange a file (something we’ve done hundreds of times before) we received this message:

File Blocked
File Blocked

Figure 1: Actual Collaboration Platform Error Message

Neither one of us could figure out why that happened or what the message (or the link to explain it) meant, so we simply sent the (thoroughly scanned and malware-free) file via a different UC platform and just shrugged off the error.

That’s actually a representation of the last frontier of UC&C – making it work across enterprises, platforms, and brands – regardless of any security restrictions – so that people who are not experts in the field like us won’t get frustrated and stop using it.  As more of our UC&C activities take place on general compute platforms and utilize BYOD solutions, the variability of experiences tends to grow exponentially.  The users’ experience of a lack of consistency and reliability are definitely two of the biggest issues facing the UC&C space today.  However, they are not the only issues.

Where We Are And How We Got Here

Those of us who work in the industry often refer back to the horrific pandemic as the reason people can now understand what we do for a living.  Having worked in and around videoconferencing for decades, I can attest to the fact that the change in perception of videoconferencing during the pandemic was nothing short of phenomenal.  Our industry used to have to go to great lengths to get people to turn on their cameras and/or make calls, as the general public had either a disdain for using the technology or a fear that it would not work.  The prevailing perception today, however, is essentially the complete opposite.  While that is an extremely positive development for the use of UC&C in everyday use, this flipping of the script now carries with it significant risk for usage that did not exist before.

Before the pandemic, when a call with any organization didn’t work, it was filed in the users’ minds as a quirk of the unreliable technology.  Now that we are much more familiar with the technology and use it for many parts of our at-home, personal lives, we expect it to work correctly every time in the enterprise.  When it doesn’t work, we are far quicker to blame the chosen technology as the reason for the failure.

At the same time, the room-based collaboration device market itself has changed.  High-quality videobars were new in 2019, drastically reducing the entry point cost for this application.  In five short years, they have gone from game-changing innovation to industry commodity.  Seemingly now every manufacturer has their own version of this form factor, with some boasting differentiating features like vertical mounting or wireless sharing, but most simply being an inexpensive option for equipping a room.  Pioneers in the collaboration space have been snapped up by larger equipment companies, also commoditizing the products that are meant for the market.  In addition, multiple new, smaller entrants into the collaboration market have further commoditized the low end of the space.

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The larger integrated rooms are also evolving in many cases.  Features like microphone pick-up automatically selecting the correct camera zone – something that would have required an expensive and complex to program control system in the past – are now built into some of the microphone arrays and cameras.  AI and Machine Learning are also driving capabilities that would have been unheard-of five years ago without an AV or production ‘crew.’

Not every entry into the space is completely new.  Some of us who have been around for a while nearly fell off our chairs when the ‘latest immersive rooms’ hit the market.

History Lesson
History Lesson

Figure 2: “Those Who Cannot Remember The Past…”

The Age Of AI in UC

We have clearly entered the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI), and UC is hardly immune from its advances and effects.  While it has been around for a while, “hiding in plain sight” supporting machine learning as some analysts like to point out, AI assistants and Large Language Models (LLMs) are exploding across UC&C platforms.  These tools can help you summarize meetings, send out notes, interpret emotions, schedule follow-ups, complete documents and emails, and do any number of additional amazing and productivity-enhancing activities.  If you expect to be working in a professional capacity for at least the next few years you had better familiarize yourself with how these tools work and what they can do.  Using them ranges in cost from free to thirty dollars per month per user, depending on which ones you select.  It costs the platforms that provide them quite a bit to maintain and operate the large computing engines and data centers that support them, so each platform is monetizing it differently per their individual go-to-market strategies.

While becoming fluent in what these AI assistants can do is wise, having your business depend upon them at this point probably is not.  There is a large cloud of litigation hanging over how these LLMs were trained, with a huge number of authors and news organizations putting forth easily provable claims of copyright infringement that will need to be settled via negotiations or in court.  In the last report, all sides are very far apart.

Future of UC

While the concept of unified communications was started in the late 1990s, its completion will likely never be achieved.  The evolution of hardware, platforms, and in fact society will force it to keep adapting and improving.  The challenge will always be that all end-users ‘just want it to work,’ yet each individual likely has a different definition of what ‘work’ means to them.  Additionally, user expectations and market forces sadly tend to work in opposite directions.

Still, even with all of the hiccups, we are now far more capable of communicating with colleagues and customers from any device and location than we ever were before.

David Danto has had over four decades of delivering successful business outcomes in media and collaboration technology. He developed and executed global technology strategies in leadership roles with JPMorgan Chase and Lehman Brothers, led media technology facility design and execution for organizations including Bloomberg LP, NYU, AT&T, and Financial News Network, and served as Poly’s Director of UC Strategy and Outreach for five years. His efforts have been recognized by many premiere industry organizations, serving as The Director of Emerging Technologies for the non-profit IMCCA; as an NAB “Pick-Hits” judge for Broadcast Engineering; and as a multi-year CES Innovation Awards judge. David is an expert on the collaboration technology industry, frequently presenting at industry events, blogging / contributing to / editing industry publications, and he is included in many of the industry’s top thought leadership lists. He also hosts podcasts for AVNation-TV and The IMCCA and is the editor of Commercial Integrator’s quarterly Collaboration Today and Tomorrow. His full bio and articles/podcasts are viewable at www.Danto.info

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