Turning the page into a new decade gives us the opportunity to put our past into perspective and predict where we’re going. In the world of unified communications and collaboration, this exercise reveals a space that is eliminating most of the poor experiences and exploding with new services and features. We can certainly admit that collaboration systems used to be expensive, difficult to use and often unreliable. I’m happy to report that the emerging technology in the space has gone a long way toward finally putting these problems behind us.
Costs will continue to plummet.
Installing an enterprise videoconference room used to cost in the $50k to $150K range (depending upon what bells and whistles you and/or your integrator chose to include). Systems like that — for boardrooms and specialty spaces — may still be installed, but as we move into the 2020s, they will be fewer and farther between. Small- to medium-sized rooms can now be equipped with systems that cost in the $2K to $5K range. In addition, these drastically less expensive systems now have better quality and better features than the expensive units of the past. Less expensive systems first came into the space as bulky, do-it-yourself kits with glorified webcams, ugly table microphones, PC- or Mac-based engines and a spaghetti-snarl of wires to connect them all up. As we move into 2020 and beyond, you’ll see more systems that wrap all of the needed parts into a single, simple to install box for roughly the same price as the kits.
The cloud is finally being embraced.
We’ve been talking about enterprises “moving to the cloud” for years. It’s now moved from a prediction to a reality. Industry researchers report that approximately 30% of enterprises are actively using cloud collaboration services and the remaining 70% are reporting plans to use services that can only be offered from the cloud. This is no longer a “future trend” discussion, but rather the reality of collaboration today. Enterprises are no longer buying on-premise hunks of iron and silicon to support their UC needs, but instead are connecting their telephony and video endpoints to their preferred services. It’s the collaboration equivalent of the popular ride-sharing services that everyone uses today. Why buy or rent a car when all you need to do is purchase one ride at a time? Why purchase a switch or a bridge or a gatekeeper when all you want to do is buy UC-as-a-Service?
Handcuffs from service providers are finally coming off.
As people move into this cloud, more endpoint manufacturers are making their systems fully agnostic. In the past, enterprises would have to buy ‘Brand A’ endpoints to work on ‘Brand A’ services. If these customers didn’t like the service or support they were receiving from ‘A’ they’d have to coordinate a rip-and-replace strategy to get rid of all the past endpoints and systems and then spend even more money installing ones from their new choice of service provider. Now we see the emergence of telephone handsets, videoconferencing systems and other integrated endpoints that run on whatever cloud an enterprise chooses. There have always been interoperability services from the providers or third parties that could make calls work using least common denominator methods, however, options for 2020 now include devices that natively run many service provider applications. That means enterprises can now have the perfect experience of ‘Brand A’ services, but if their features, support or prices are not meeting user needs, the systems can be reset to provide ‘Brand B’ native experiences – without having to forklift and throw out all of the past purchases. This removal of the lock-in will force service providers to compete with each other on service and price – as they should have all along – and will improve the costs and experiences for users of their services. The best advice to enterprises for 2020 and beyond is that if your collaboration partner is trying to sell or rent you their brand of end point to work on only their brand of services, run in the other direction as fast as you can.
Systems are getting smarter.
As all of these changes take place it’s impossible to ignore how the technology itself is improving. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are now the engines behind the devices being deployed. As we move into this new decade we will see systems that are much smarter and easier to use. They will know your calendar and your preferences and give you a single button to begin your meetings – regardless of which service provider platform it’s held on. They will make adjusting a camera a thing of the past, as their AI will know just the right shot for the action taking place – be it a close up of the speaker, a wide shot of multiple speakers, an automatic and immediate reframe of the shot as people enter or leave the room, and, if two people really start going at each other in a serious debate, a combined image of both of them. AI processing will know the difference between keyboard typing or car sirens and people speaking, and will actively filter out the noise while allowing the voices to make it to the other end of the call.
In 2020 and beyond we will finally see collaboration systems meet and in fact exceed the promises that were in the first videoconferencing advertisements in the 1990s. They will have achieved not only as good as being there, but in fact, the experiences will be better than being there – as the people in the room will still hear that siren and still have to look back and forth at two people arguing. Lower cost, simpler to use, better quality and smarter systems will make collaborating from anywhere the best experience it has ever been.