The words integration and interoperability are bandied around interchangeably, but the reality is - they aren’t the same thing.
No industry is more aware of this than the vendors of the Unified Communications industry, who have historically struggled with silos and islands of proprietary systems sitting unused, unloved and unwanted. Ashan Willy, Senior Vice President of Worldwide Product Management & Systems Engineering at Polycom explains to us why the difference between interop and integration is a crucial one, and why Polycom is putting it all out there in a bid for both.
ITPP: What are end users demanding when it comes to UC?
AW: The demands of end users in relation to their Unified Communications solutions span three areas, rooted in the past, the present and the future.
Integration is absolutely the number one demand, no question. The drive for a more integrated version of UC comes from the past ability to integrate your voice solutions with voicemail, or voicemail and email. Now we’re integrating collaboration and video into the UC environment. This demand for integration isn’t just an IT request, end users are really the ones pushing for a seamless experience.
That’s where the second part comes in; experience. Thanks to their consumer-experiences, business-users are accustomed to the wonderful experiences of clean, simple apps like Whatsapp and Facetime. That’s great as it means they want more video and more collaboration as long as it’s a great experience, and that includes on mobile, desktop and room-based systems. Anytime, anywhere they want that same experience. The great news is that it’s absolutely achievable right now.
The third part is where enterprises are aiming to get to in the near future, and that’s personalisation. Making UC a more personalised experience is the catalyst the market needs in order to cause a UC explosion. Smartphone apps took off so rapidly because they are personalized to you, everything from where they sit on your home screen, to how you log in. But overall UC deployment remains lower because a far less personalized solution is being delivered. The difference is that we are happy to have 40 apps on our smartphone, but if we enter a collaboration room and see more than two or three room-based apps on screen we are overwhelmed. Early attempts at UC personalisation in the late 90s and early 2000s were not quite enough. Concepts such as hoteling enables users to use any available shared phone by logging in to a guest profile. After logging in, users have access to their own guest profile and settings on the shared phone, but it lacks the personalisation for the ‘guest’.
Our style of work is changing, and we’re seeing much more open and shared space in offices, especially in Europe. UC technologies that allow quick and easy personalisation of a shared space are what end users are really calling out for. They want to bring their smartphone or tablet into a shared room and have it change the display, content etc. Polycom Concierge detects attendees, pulls in your calendar and allows you to access documents in cloud-based services like OneDrive automatically. So the room feels like your desktop. We are currently working to enable the next phase, which will be to make this available through ID badges, so you can simply swipe and personalise. In this way you could build policy around shared spaces, restricting content based on attendees etc. In the future this could be a wearable device, like a multi-function FitBit band, that allows you to swipe in and personalise your space. Concierge is the first of its kind to begin to solve this challenge for the enterprise. It’s the only secure, enterprise-grade, deployable technology that will personalise the UC experience.
ITPP: What is the difference between interoperability and integration?
AW: We are the only pure-play collaboration vendor in the market, so for us both interoperability and integration are key to our solutions being successful. However, we do feel that interoperability is just a low level check-box. It only provides the most basic necessary protocols, etc. to the customer, but puts the onus on them to design and build their experience.
The problem with this approach is that UC is a very experience driven technology, so as a vendor (of any part, no matter how small) you have to take care of the overall experience if you want customers to feel the value of your solutions. That’s what integration means, the vendor doing the hard work beyond simply getting the gear to work together.
Good examples of UC integration exist around workflows. For example, Twilio have done this really well in the telecoms sphere by making their APIs available to build SMS functionality into your workflows via their web service.
Historically we have focused building integration between our solutions and other key UC systems, such as Microsoft, IBM and Broadsoft. We’re realistic about the complexities of the enterprise UC environment around multiple vendors and solutions, and we understand that in order to deliver value to the customer, integration is essential. If you have gear from any of these vendors in your network, we make sure your experience is seamless. For example, with Microsoft we developed Polycom RealConnect, which is essentially a set of capabilities that mean you don’t notice the difference between your desktop and mobile application versus when you connect into room based systems with Skype for Business.
ITPP: Why have UC vendors traditionally feared interoperability?
The enterprise IT and UC market has traditionally dominated by a few key players. These global giants wanted to provide the entire environment. That was fine in the 90s, but with the rate of innovation we are seeing today, it’s not possible for UC to be the domain of one or two vendors any more. Mushrooming of applications is something that’s happening across the IT industry. The average enterprise has over 400 cloud-type offerings according to industry sources, which means it’s going to be a heterogeneous world, and vendors need to get on board with interoperability.
Sometimes vendors create a solution that is best in class in terms of quality, but they compromise on interoperability to achieve. Polycom has always focused on developing the highest possible quality solutions and then making them available as open standards to ensure interoperability. We know that interoperability is best for the market; it drives adoption and usage levels amongst customers, which in turn drive sales and profit for the vendor. Look at Ethernet and Token Ring or IP versus TechNet, trying to maintain proprietary ecosystems in the modern world can be the nail in the coffin for vendors.
ITPP: How can pure-play vendors provide UC interoperability and integration in a way that benefits end users?
AW: Philosophically we believe it’s going to be a variegated environment. We aim to contribute to producing the best possible customer environment that includes our solutions, so this is wrapped into the core of our development principles.
To make sure we develop solutions that provide the ease of use expected of interoperable and integrated video collaboration, we thoroughly test solutions in customer environments. It’s really the only way to achieve this. We walk into customer environments that have a lot of existing technology, such as Microsoft, and we go in and test to produce the Polycom Assured Design document which includes a set of services standards. By doing this we don’t leave customers to achieve this themselves once they have purchased our solutions. It’s more investment time on our end, but it ultimately results in end user benefits which benefit us.
ITPP: Where do UC vendors need to integrate their solutions into other applications?
Epic Electronic Medical Records have a Polycom video button integrated, which means doctors can be checking a record, then launch a video call with a patient or colleague all from within the same application. The doctor’s workflow is maintained, so they don’t lose time switching applications and they don’t have to learn how to use a new solution.
One of the things we have realised is that we need to make it easier for customers to build their own kinds of integration. We’ve always had APIs available for this but they were very difficult to access, so last year we put everything in the cloud to make it easy. We call it Sandbox and the thinking behind it is to make integrating UC apps beyond ‘out of the box’ integration as simple as possible. An example of a customer who has done this is Vyopta, who has integrated video collaboration into its virtual receptionist service. It means the ‘VR’s can manage physical video assets, such as room-based systems, with the scheduling tools they use across their workflow. This isn’t something that we could necessarily have pre-planned for in our development, but it was entirely possible thanks to open standards and available APIs.
ITPP: What are the benefits to the vendor of the integration of UC into business applications?
AW: The minute you integrate UC into business applications and existing workflows, adoption spikes. Adoption levels have always been the main issue for traditional video conferencing. But once you increase adoption you see the size of the overall video estate, and UC ecosystem increases. Which means - more business for the vendor. In this way vendors can show better ROI on their solutions.
Other benefits of integration into business applications is that it’s much easier to demonstrate improved productivity when you don’t draw the users out of one workflow and into another, as there’s no downtime. You can also start to probe into new areas of the organisation. If integration has been accepted in one business function within their workflow, other department heads are more likely to look for adjacent activities where they can benefit too. It allows you to address different bisectors within the same customer. A similar transformation happened in the voice ‘world’. We went from the old model where voice was sourced by the telecoms buyer to being signed for by the data or IT head. Video has gone from the AV buyer to both the IT and systems decision makers. This is now morphing to include the general business buyer (CMO, CHRO, CFO), so it’s a multifaceted customer to impress. Integration makes it easier to open these doors because you can show the direct benefit to each member of that customer panel.
It’s also about protecting your business for the future. It’s not enough to talk about integration, it needs to be seamless. We talk a lot about the end user and making it easy for them, but the fact is, the shape of the IT department has changed. IT departments are under immense pressure, and decision makers are having to become more generalist in an age where they are working to be seen as value-adders, not cost centres. That means that the emphasis is on ease of deployment and management, because the person who has to integrate the UC solutions is not necessarily a specialist in that kind of technology.
This has led to a rise in plug-and-play endpoints. If you look at something like our RealPresence Trio, it simply plugs in with one power and Ethernet cable. But the real secret is that the software will integrate with over 60 systems in the same, simple manner. We’ve seen this trend growing for some years now and it’s going to become the standard over the next two to three. IT administrators will expect solutions to integrate out of the box. We have to understand that IT professionals don’t have time to learn how to integrate every single solution in their environment, in the same way that we as consumers and business employees don’t have time to learn how to use a whole new set of tools. We’re seeing consistency in User Interface design, with standard behaviours being accommodated, now we need to do the same with integration. Customers depend on us to make it easy to deploy and install, so we need to fulfill that expectation.
ITPP: What does the future hold for UC integration?
I often get asked what’s coming next, people want to know about Virtual Reality, 3D and holographic conferencing. The current buzzword is 4K. In the next 12 – 24 months you’ll see much more 4K come into the market, but not video. People don’t want to see other people in better resolution, what value is there in that for a meeting? The interest in 4K centres on content. For example, we have a lot of entertainment company customers like Disney and Warner, who want to play back full motion video content. In this scenario 4K adds value, so it will become more prevalent. Our Immersive Studio already has 4K content screens, and people with an iPhone 6 in their pocket can film in ultra HD, so it’s more than possible now with high-end solutions.
Higher definition content will go hand-in-hand with more capable content in general. People want to be able to annotate, stretch, pinch and zoom in the same way they can on their smart devices. They also want multiple party inputs and to easily save to their cloud services. Making content more useful in this way, beyond simple screen sharing, is the future of UC integration.
No one wants to use Virtual Reality goggles in a business meeting, but they do want depth perception and the ability to see from all angles. We’ll see content evolve over time into an augmented reality. This could be architects looking at scale building models, surgeons looking at patient scans or engineers discussing designs for vehicle parts. Overlaying a virtual reality into a real environment is not that far away.
The last hurdle for UC integration will be finding a way to create a continuum of work. At the moment we’ve defied distance, we meet with colleagues wherever they are. But we haven’t yet figured out how to avoid the downtime of varying time zones amongst teams. The challenge is to integrate video and wider UC into a persistent workflow to take advantage of a global workforce. In order to do this, recording, archiving and streaming needs to become more alive, rather than sitting in virtual libraries gathering dust. This is the next big integration challenge for the industry.