Comcast is joining with the telcos in offering a hosted PBX and UC product, and the move is significant both for the overall competition in the UC space and for the evolution of voice and UC overall. Cisco is expanding its Jabber UC, and also linking it better with telepresence. Sprint is partnering with Cisco in cloud UC too. But the big guns have yet to make their move in this space, and when and if they do it could be a major market-changer.
Cisco’s Jabber update and integration with telepresence is no slouch from the perspective of a change in the dynamic. It’s a strategy for the cloud, for enterprises and service providers (as Sprint is showing). It may be a goad for Google, because Sprint is the only operator to have actually integrated its service (wireless of course) with Google Voice, a product with great potential but which has been stalled in its current shape for a long time. The telepresence integration is important to Cisco, too, because of the way collaboration works in the real world.
Our research on this particular topic is extensive, and what I’ve seen is that most intense collaboration (the kind you use telepresence for) evolves out of simpler attempts to get something done. You try the phone, you engage sharing a document view, and you then move to video. This pattern means it’s really hard to get to the finish line if you keep trying to bypass the starting gate. Chambers, who doesn’t understand why people just don’t buy routers till the bleed from the ears, kind of skipped that part of the collaborative lesson.
They may be enough of a threat to lever the other guys, of course. I already noted that the Sprint deal might give Google some pause, and some of the features of the Jabber UC platform seem to hit at where Microsoft is likely to take Skype. Here the problem for Cisco is the free platform side of Skype. Cisco doesn’t want to become a provider of free communications itself, nor do Cisco’s carrier customers. The latter are not adverse to having a low-cost UC platform, but as the AT&T, Verizon, and now Comcast moves show they’re far more comfortable with a digital-voice PBX hosting mission than a full-blown UC mission.
Which gets us to Skype and Microsoft. Everyone expects that Microsoft will create a kind of super-Skype that will build on the basic UC capabilities of the free platform and avoid driving away the current massive user base. At the same time, Microsoft has a potential conflict with its own customers on tap because Skype is a revenue-drainer for the telcos and Microsoft still wants telco partnerships for cloud services. They need free Skype, they need Skype integrated with SharePoint, and they need super-Skype as a carrier platform. That’s a lot to get done. Google could move faster; Cisco could have. Will it take Microsoft, hardly the market’s leading innovator these days, to follow along? If so, there may be a lag here because I think Microsoft wants to have super-Skype linked to Windows 8 and its phone and tablet strategies. There will be a tendency to keep adding bows and buttons and laces and pretty soon you don’t have a dress, you have a blob.
Comcast is in the news for a reason beyond UC, and it’s neutrality (again). Comcast’s traffic engineering practices and appeal of an FCC ruling were what got us neutrality regulations in the first place. Now, even as those regulations are being appealed, Comcast is pushing the envelope again. Its X-box streaming service uses the carrier’s “off-net” IP bandwidth, the same thing that Comcast uses for voice and that AT&T uses for video. The purpose for now is to avoid having the traffic hit the bandwidth caps, but it could also provide enhanced QoS. This isn’t specifically prohibited by the neutrality rules, but it’s something the FCC said it would watch because it could become a threat. Some are now saying that time of threat has arrived. AT&T has also indicated that app developers would be able to pay for traffic their apps use and thus to not have them charged against usage for the customer.
Operators are pretty confident that the FCC can’t stop “bypass-Net” here for premium services, which means that things like cloud services are also likely to jump off the Internet bus even at the access level. Given that they do that inside (see my prior blogs) the cloud already and within CDNs, we’re seeing a pretty quick trend toward creating a different model of services that won’t be based on an open and incrementally free connectivity fabric. That threatens the Internet model, but the model is already being threatened by the fact that profit on incremental capacity is impossible to earn in the current service model. We may be facing a choice between two poles of solution that people aren’t going to like.