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The Battle for Unified Communications Heats Up March 7, 2011

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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Synchronous communications like mobile group chat are the latest battleground in the war over unified communications. Startups like GroupMe and Yobongo were part of a flurry of announcements last week on IM, chat and group messaging, but no matter how clever and fun their apps are, and no matter how much these companies hope to be the stars of this year’s SXSW conference, they’re not the real contenders in the race to create a unified communications hub.

Rather, the battle for what company supplies a user’s communications control panel is being fought among technology platform players like Google, Microsoft and Facebook. And a scrappy Skype can’t be ignored either.

The winners — and there’s enough interoperability across communications channels to accommodate multiple hubs — will have an application that its users access constantly. A unified communications hub offers potential customer lock-in through habit and the effort required to switch. Om wrote that by controlling a user’s synchronous interactions — sharing experiences that replicate reality — Google could fix its social media flops and beat Facebook. A unified communications hub could be the launchpad to do just that.

Building the Unified Communications Hub

A successful communications control panel will integrate three key components:

  • Universal communications channels: A user should be able to manage both real-time and asynchronous communications, one to one and multi-party, and across different channels: voice, email, text, video. Managing means initiating or receiving the message and moving gracefully between channels with as little effort as possible. For example, IMs should convert to SMS messages if the receiver is away from his computer or smartphone. Email and messaging from Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are good at this already.
  • Contact management: Besides just storing contacts and their various addresses, a universal communications hub increasingly needs to manage groups. It’s even better if that doesn’t require a user to work too hard. Facebook is attempting to get users to tag group members rather than make lists, and Google’s Gmail prioritization auto-sorts by “learning” from a user’s previous email activities. Location-based services and social graphs about a user’s relationships and preferences will play a big role here.
  • Presence management: People need better control over managing their availability. With chat and IM, you’re either available to all or not, and you have to manually screen your phone calls. By integrating contact groups and presence, a person could make himself available in real time for family in the evening, but available to co-workers only via email.

I’m less convinced about the need for a universal inbox, at least the way Facebook has implemented it. Yes, there should be one place to find notifications of communications waiting for you; Apple’s visual voice mail is a great example of this. But storing IMs and emails together, and sorting them only by user, seems oversimplified. Users likely appreciate the non-permanence of IMs and the flexibility of folders.

Handicapping the Contenders

So what are the contenders’ key strengths?

  • Google can lead with voice, mail and mobile. It should actively build hub features into Android, rather than depend on third-party apps.
  • Microsoft’s mail and IM strength is in corporate markets, and it gets along with Facebook on contact sharing. Nokia could be a strong partner in mobile hubs, but that’s going to take some time.
  • Facebook can leverage its social graph to create a hub that requires the least effort from users. It is gaining ground in synchronous communications and dominates link- and photo-sharing.
  • Skype has moved well beyond its original cheap calling pitch into an early lead in video, and already acts as a control panel for many consumer communications. It’s strengthening its enterprise position with web conferencing partner Citrix.

Question of the week

Who is leading the charge in unified communications?

What Facebook Messages Is Really After November 22, 2010

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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2 comments

It’s not email. That’s what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at last week’s introduction of Facebook Messages. He called it “a modern messaging system,” and half-jokingly added that the next generation of users would gradually drift away from email. But what Facebook is really trying to establish with its unified communications hub is presence management, which is why Facebook Messages feels at least as much like IM as it does email.

Driven by enterprise-oriented companies like Microsoft, IBM/Lotus and later Google, email evolved with the addition of PIM features like contact management and calendar integration. Those companies, along with consumer-focused ones like Yahoo and AOL, added spam filtering and began to integrate other communication types and transports, including instant messaging and voice. At the same time, the corporate companies built up collaboration facilities, beginning in the ’80s with Lotus Notes, and more recently with services like Microsoft SharePoint and Google’s ill-fated Wave.

But Facebook is moving in a completely different direction.

Intimacy and Immediacy

Facebook Messages focuses on intimacy and immediacy at the expense of formality, flexibility and history. Yes, Facebook’s social inbox pulls in different message types, but it weaves them into a thread that’s based on the sender rather than the topic, similar to IM or texting on a smartphone. To encourage immediate and recurring use and response, Facebook Messages eliminates subject headers and address look-up. Inbox folders are Friends, Other and Junk. That’s it.

And the approach isn’t aimed at only consumer (rather than professional) usage. Rather, it de-emphasizes important consumer communications like billing, newsletters, one-to-many emailing and forwarding. That’s because it’s more important in the long run for Facebook to be its users’ launchpad for personal communications and presence management than it is for the feature to be the management tool for all communications.

The Real Objective: Presence Management

By presence management, I mean the tools and platform a person uses to announce his availability to other people (and, potentially, to ‘bots and services). A powerful, unified presence manager would also enable the user to express how he’d like to communicate, and to manipulate that “how” and “when” availability to different types of contacts. Early examples of presence management tools were AOL’s IM and chat (though Buddy Lists didn’t make that availability very flexible) and Caller ID. Today’s email and social network apps also contain such tools.

If Facebook establishes Messages as a user’s primary tool to manage presence across multiple communications vehicles, it would be an incredibly sticky app, with huge customer lock-in potential. Facebook contacts are beginning to play an increasingly important role across communications. That’s one reason Facebook doesn’t want users to share them. Facebook Groups could be a step towards a presence-aware buddy list. For instance, after 6 p.m. a user could make himself instantly available for family, but available to co-workers only via email.

How Should Competitors React?

Email’s not going away, for many reasons. Even teenagers want their online shopping receipts, and likely won’t route newsletters to their Friends inbox.

Microsoft understands this, and the difference between corporate and personal email. It should continue to build collaboration into Outlook, bridges between Outlook and Hotmail, and make sure its Messenger presence infrastructure interoperates with Facebook’s.

Gmail is an extensible apps platform, and a Gmail address is a hub domain for non-communications apps. Google’s aggressiveness in voice communications might give it an advantage over Facebook in mobile presence management.

Yahoo and AOL need to integrate voice communications deeply, and push hard to get their IM apps used on smartphones, with ties as strong as possible to SMS.

At one point, carriers like Verizon and AT&T looked like they could play a role in presence management, or establish their address book as a user’s most critical one. But they’ve built little off those bases.

Question of the week

How can companies compete with Facebook Messages?