The other day a customer, who was in the middle of exploring several different collaboration technologies, asked a relatively straightforward question: If you could start from scratch, what would you recommend we do?
I lean towards the market leaders when they’re generally going in the right direction, so let’s entertain the latest from Microsoft & Cisco. As we enter the second quarter of 2016, Project Rigel and Cisco Spark are now in the full public eye and the collaboration community is recognizing the platforms of yesterday are going to move to the cloud sooner than we thought or, in the case of some, hoped.
At the highest of levels, my guidance to customers includes developing a strategy and budget for cloud-based communication tools that incorporate, at least, the following three communication modalities:
- Audio communications finally extending beyond the desk phone and spanning any device a user is near, including the mobile phone in their pocket
- Video communications that allow you to see any participant, their screen, or share a file, irrespective of the other party’s platform of choice – this is not to be confused with protocol interoperability (addressed later)
- Written communication in the form of peer-to-peer & group-based/project-based communication tools that provides instant message delivery with confirmed receipt
Many companies are leveraging on premise services for many, if not all, of these types of communication. For example, consider how the needs are met today with the following example conglomeration of services and service providers:
- Audio – Cisco UCM, Avaya IP Office/Aura, Microsoft Skype for Business
- Video – Cisco and Polycom, followed by LifeSize, Vidyo
- IM – Jabber, S4B, Slack
- File sharing – Box.com, Dropbox, Sharepoint, CIFS
- Screen sharing – Teamviewer, RDP, WebEx, GotoMeeting
- Written communication – e-mail, faxes, and of course paper documents
Each of the technologies have strengths to their offering and they have a client list a mile long to backup their efficacy. The lifecycle for these products has not come to an end but rather each needs to transform to a new platform where they can coexist to some degree. For a moment, let’s focus on Slack. This platform is reminiscent of the IRC platforms from the past with its #channel naming convention, “/” commands, and bots. What’s quite interesting about this platform and why it is getting so much attention from the competitive teams at Cisco, is the third-party integration capabilities. There were over 150 apps integrated with Slack (12/2015) including favorites such as Done, Freshdesk, Looker, and Zapier’s numerous integrations. On top of the capabilities, Slack has phenomenal user growth which is fueling even more development. It should be anticipated that what is found on Slack will be built for Spark, eventually. But, Slack is lacking in the enterprise call control and conferencing space in which Cisco and Microsoft are entrenched. Slack is working to solve this with their integrations, but it is not enterprise class in comparison to our market leaders.
This brings us back to the three areas converging on the single-footprint clients available from Microsoft and Cisco. The following is a very quick rundown of the big ticket features, but there are many more that space simply does not allow here.
- Cisco Spark: Call Control, Messaging and Meetings
- M3 package: 1:1 messaging, 25-party instant calls from a group room, screen sharing; WebEx Personal Meeting Rooms, traditional scheduled meetings, and external participant support (browser, mobile, S4B, etc.)
- Add-on voice with “C” package: Adds cloud calling – UCM in the cloud, mobility, and voicemail
- Hybrid services allow existing Cisco UC customers to layer-on Spark “M” packages while retaining calling features in-house; phone management remains an in-house responsibility
- Pure cloud offering consists of third party PSTN, simple provisioning process for users, phone numbers, phones, and features; phone management goes to the cloud and elevates phone admin responsibilities
- Tools like Jabber are replaced with Spark as the messaging client, there is no need to have both products in a Spark-serviced environment (as soon as the much anticipated presence integration arrives)
- Expect $50 or so per user/month. Phone hardware costs will remain the same and fluctuate with the model purchased.
- Microsoft announced the new E5 plan with their version of Call Control, Messaging, and Meetings
- The new E5 package “Cloud PBX” is enhancing S4B calling and pulling through PSTN-access for your S4B client (or Polycom registered phone as a S4B client)
- This was followed by the 3/16 joint Microsoft & Polycom announcement of Project Rigel which signals a major push for full phone-endpoint integration and helps drive their cloud-connected story
- Polycom is an affordable endpoint and Microsoft is positioning themselves competitively as the Cloud PBX with a simple sign-up process migration path for existing S4B users
- Microsoft is lacking the group “channel” concept found in Cisco Spark and Slack, but one has to believe they’ll answer this with a future improvement given Slack’s adoption rate and competition with Spark
- Expect per user fees of $35 for the base license, a $24 conferencing license, applicable PSTN fees, and associated phone hardware costs
One may also notice that Microsoft is not positioning an interoperability story which Cisco tackles with their WebEx & Collaboration Meeting Room product. This is correct but it is important to note that after Enterprise Connect 2016, many participants left the conference considering interoperability to be dead. The silo walls are up and the question is raised: Why provide interop when there’s always a way “in” to these meetings? A non-S4B user can download a plugin, use a web browser or dial in with audio, so why do we need to force Cisco and Microsoft to work together?
It is for these reasons it is believable that Cisco & Microsoft interop from their respective clients may never happen as they continue to innovate and focus on making their platforms more ubiquitous.
So to the question, if starting from scratch what would we recommend?
Evaluate Spark if you already know the S4B experience. If you don’t have S4B E5 experience, sign-up for a trial of both and conduct your own subjective tests of call quality, ease of provisioning, migration utilities, meeting scheduling, and reporting. Then begin to lay plans for an implementation of the preferred platform. At Covene, we can assist with the evaluation, planning and ultimately, migration process. If you’re ready to get started, let me know.
In closing, call it what you want: VoIP, IP Telephony, Unified Communications, Collaboration, or a PBX – but whatever you call it, be prepared to call it “Cloud” as the familiar story we’ve known the last 10+ years for telephony, is coming to an end.