Five unified communications trends to watch in 2018

With 2018 fast approaching, it’s time to look ahead and consider what we can expect for the coming year. While putting together my thoughts this year, it struck me how closely interconnected the themes are this time.   

Team Collaboration and UCaaS: We need both integration and flexibility

Enterprises and vendors recognize that today’s modern workplace is more collaborative than ever -- for many users, collaboration apps are becoming a primary business communication tool. For many people, especially knowledge workers, a typical workday means continuously exchanging information via chat, email, shared documents and workspaces. This emerging workflow calls for a single, tightly integrated interface for collaboration and UCaaS.   

However, for many other users, and use cases, a simpler and more streamlined experience is required. For example, many service industries require rich mobile UC with easy access to conferencing, files and other information sources. But in these cases, ongoing collaboration with shared workspaces is much less common.   

Whether it’s full integration or streamlined mobile-first environments, I believe that we must recognize the great variety of use cases and provide the flexibility to adapt application functions and user interfaces for them. This creates several challenges: First, we must identify the key use cases and carefully design workflows and user interfaces that truly optimize user experience. Second, we need implementation technology that allows us to build and deliver a variety of use-case optimized applications quickly and cost effectively.   

On such example is microservices which I’ll touch on below in point number five. Another is integrating and packaging UCaaS and team collaboration features flexibly via web applications.   

In 2018, I expect the industry to recognize that comprehensive all-in-one integration is suitable for some knowledge industries, but packaging and user interface flexibility are key for providing simpler and ultimately more productive solutions for a much larger population of business users.   

Work from Any Screen: The Smartphone Replaces the PBX 

Last year, we saw a move towards “native” implementations of mobile UC: the use of embedded or tightly integrated UC apps on mobile devices. An example is Verizon’s One Talk service in which smartphones replace the PBX and a single mobile number replaces the fixed line. These apps can also leverage the native voice and video capabilities of mobile networks rather than OTT VoIP (over-the-top, e.g. Whatsapp), which contributes to a much better mobile UC user experience. And the benefit of native mobile integration is only set to increase with the introduction of 5G, with embedded support for even richer user experience such as augmented reality.    

This mobile-centric experience is now being complemented by two additional advances. First, the range of UC function supported on mobile devices will expand to include team collaboration, content sharing and enhanced meeting support. A good example is the Verizon One Talk service, which was initially conceived as a simple, streamlined service for smaller enterprises to replace their phone systems. But as Verizon recently said in an interview with No Jitter, the service is being enhanced with the BroadSoft Team-One collaboration and enterprise UC features while maintaining its mobile usability focus. This trend is also closely related to a general increase in larger enterprise adoption of UCaaS, which I’ll address next.   

Second, we’ll see more robust implementations for UC of what Apple calls “Continuity”: the ability to begin a task on one device and continue it seamlessly across other devices. For quite some time, we have been demonstrating a basic but high value use case - starting a call on a mobile or desk phone and then “pulling” it live to another device as needed. Now this use case is being augmented with real-time continuity for video, chat, conferencing and access to content. 

Put together, we believe these advances will result in strong momentum in 2018 for this next generation of mobile services, featuring both tight mobile integration and a full set of UC functionality.   

The New Driver for UCaaS Growth - Large, Mid-market and Global Enterprises Choose the Cloud 

We have already seen an overall acceleration in the adoption of cloud communications; recent analyst reports peg 2017 shipments growth at more than 20 percent. But while growth has been strong for a number of years, it has been driven primarily by smaller enterprises.   

For 2018, we foresee a very significant shift in growth towards larger enterprises. Larger businesses are becoming comfortable with the reliability and security of cloud solutions, and are embracing their superior economics, scalability and ease of operation.   

But in addition to the operational and cost benefits, UCaaS solutions now also offer superior functionality. In a recent report the advisory firm Gartner notes: “UCaaS capabilities now exceed those available from premises-based UC. The pace of UCaaS innovation is accelerating as vendors focus R&D resources on cloud delivery.” And this functional advantage is only set to increase as cloud solutions enable significantly more innovation and faster upgrades. 

The stronger demand from larger enterprises also means that UCaaS solutions must adapt to better fit their needs. We have been focusing heavily on improving functionality and delivery and support for multi-regional and multinational enterprises, including business process integration, centralized provisioning and service management, and managing localization internationally. Larger business also has a stronger focus on corporate network performance, mandating tight integration with emerging transport technologies such as SD-WAN. 

With this powerful combination of cost, operation and functional advantages, midsize and large enterprises will increasingly choose cloud solutions to replace their obsolete PBX systems. We predict that in 2018, growth rate in UCaaS shipments in these key segments will also accelerate to about 20 percent, and overtake growth in maturing small business segment.   

Business Voice Assistants: Finally Emerging from the Lab   

Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google - enabled by rapid advances in voice recognition and artificial intelligence, voice assistants have become a key consumer technology.   

But voice assistants have been slower to emerge in business applications, as they pose unique challenges: access to disparate enterprise data and deep understanding of business context and processes. This becomes apparent if we consider the complexity and domain knowledge required to execute an instruction such as: “Get all documents and set a final review of product X launch.” Such basic tasks are in fact quite complicated and highly variable between different industries, companies and even individual projects.   

Yet, voice assistants in business hold the potential for far greater productivity and economic impact, especially when coupled with UCaaS, and further integrated with team collaboration and contact centers. Consider the power of having a business voice assistant as a virtual participant in a team collaboration workspace, including participation in conference calls. It can be available to retrieve documents and information at everyone’s request, and over time I see it beginning to proactively offer assistance based on the collaboration context!   

We foresee that in 2018 the first generation of business voice assistants will be put through their paces - at least in trials - by leading suppliers and early adopter enterprises. 

Public Cloud and Microservices: Rapidly advancing Innovation and User Experience   

Time-to-market has been somewhat of a stumbling block for the telecoms industry, especially when it comes to business services. Installing, maintaining and upgrading PBX or key systems at each customer premise is slow, complicated and expensive. This is a huge burden for enterprises and has resulted in innovation and upgrade cycles as long as 10 years! 

A second key challenge has been the flexibility to quickly adapt or integrate applications for different use cases - for example UC and team collaboration as I discussed above.   

Last year, I pointed out that UCaaS is emerging as the preferred replacement for premise systems and will dramatically speed up innovation and time-to-market. Applications can now be implemented and upgraded by the service provider and instantly become available to everyone.   

Now another technology - microservices - is promising to further improve time-to-market as well as customization. This emerging architecture involves decomposing applications into their functional components and allowing them to be configured in various combinations through extensive use of APIs. This is not a new concept, but its application at scale via cloud services will have a significant impact. Business users can not only expect faster innovation, but also far greater flexibility in packaging and customization to meet their specific user experience needs.   

The unbundling and extensive use of APIs associated with microservices also helps deliver a more open application ecosystem. And this vast emerging ecosystem of microservices, for example machine learning, will allow us to build fascinating integrations for specific industries -- such as health, retail and education -- faster and cost effectively. 

The bottom line is that UCaaS is shortening the innovation cycle for business communications from many years to months while reducing complexity and costs. And microservices will further enable and speed up the delivery of finely targeted user experience. Both trends will contribute significantly to enterprise UCaaS adoption and productivity gains - I expect them to further accelerate and mature in 2018.      

Scott Hoffpauir, CTO at BroadSoft 

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