Once in a blue moon Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates sends a letter out to analysts and industry cognoscenti, typically something that advances a philosophical platform for the firm but in a typically incomprehensible manner. Here’s this quarter’s installment, on what Microsoft is calling “Unified Communications” and what I suggest is them running just a bit afraid that Microsoft is becoming less relevant, less important to the future of computing.
It doesn’t matter whether you are the chairman of the world’s largest software company, a salesperson at a medium-sized manufacturer or the receptionist at a small startup, there’s one workplace scenario we are all familiar with. It starts when you need to reach a colleague quickly. First you look up their phone extension and give them a call, only to be directed to their voicemail. After you leave a message, you find their mobile phone number and leave a second message. Next, you send an email. If you happen to be in a meeting when your colleague gets your messages and tries to reach you, the process repeats itself, but from the other direction.
A decade’s worth of software innovation has transformed the workplace and empowered information workers to do their jobs with greater speed, effectiveness and intelligence. But communicating with colleagues and sharing information is still far too complicated. Because you are a subscriber to the Microsoft Executive Email program, I wanted to share my thoughts with you about new “unified communications” innovations that will dramatically streamline the way we communicate at work and stay in touch with friends and family at home.
Enhanced Communications in the New World of Work
Today, the Internet provides us with nearly unlimited access to information about markets, products and competitors. Productivity applications help us use that information to gain insight into a rapidly-changing world. Collaboration tools let us work together to transform insight into business decisions that drive success. During the next decade, a new generation of digital technologies will enable companies to create people-ready businesses that help employees work together to make informed, timely decisions that quicken the pace of innovation and open the door to new opportunities.
But communication is still a significant challenge. In a single day, you probably send and receive email, make business calls from your desktop and mobile telephones, and check messages in multiple mailboxes. You might participate in an audio conference call, use instant messaging and schedule meetings with your calendaring application.
The irony is that rather than making it easier to reach people, the proliferation of disconnected communications devices often makes it more difficult and more time consuming. And in an age when business success increasingly depends on how quickly people can share information, this is a critical issue.
In the coming years, unified communications technologies will eliminate the barriers between the communications modes-email, voice, Web conferencing and more-that we use every day. They will enable us to close the gap between the devices we use to contact people when we need information and the applications and business processes where we use that information. The impact on productivity, creativity and collaboration will be profound.
The Dawn of the Age of Unified Communications
According to a recent study, there’s a 70 percent chance that when you call someone at work, you will get voicemail. Another study found that one in four information workers spend the equivalent of three full working days each year trying unsuccessfully to connect with other people by phone. When you do reach the person you’ve called, there’s no guarantee that it’s a convenient time for them to answer your question, or that they have access to the information you need.
The problem is that our communications identities and experiences are linked too closely to our location, our devices and the mode of contact we are using. Your work number is tied to the phone on your desk. Your cell phone number calls the device you carry in your pocket. You may have separate identities for email and instant messaging, plus a number you call for audio conferencing and a code you must input.
This is far too complicated. Unified communications will reduce complexity by putting people at the center of the communications experience. Our goal is to integrate all of the ways we contact each other in a single environment, using a single identity that spans phones, PCs and other devices. Our vision is to make it easy for people to reach each other using the mode of communication that is the most productive, on the device that is most convenient, while at the same time providing individuals with the highest levels of control over when and how they can be reached, and by whom.
With unified communications, you will be able to tell at a glance if the person you need to talk to is in the office and available to take your call. When you are on the phone, you’ll be able to move from a two-person conversation to a conference call with a click of the mouse, or switch to a video conference that includes colleagues and partners from around the world. Unified communications solutions will have the intelligence to know who is allowed to interrupt you when you are busy and automatically route phone calls, emails and instant messages to the right device when you leave the office. You’ll also be able to listen to your email or read your phone messages.
Unified communications will reduce complexity on the backend, too. Today, IT struggles to operate an unwieldy mix of disconnected systems: a PBX system for phone calls, a messaging system for voice mail, a solution for email, a system for instant messaging and more. According to one recent survey, a typical company has deployed six types of communications devices and runs five different communications software systems.
The expense can be enormous. Even at Microsoft, it still costs up to $750 to give a new employee basic telephony capabilities, plus an additional $180 per user per year for maintenance and management. And Microsoft and companies like ours continue to spend heavily on telephony even though the PC has largely replaced the telephone as the way people prefer to communicate in the workplace. In a recent poll, 61 percent of information workers cited email as their primary communication tool, while 75 percent said they check their email every morning before they check their voice messages.
The Coming Communications Convergence
The arrival of unified communications signals the beginning of the convergence of VoIP telephony (which provides the ability to route telephone calls through the Internet), email, instant messaging, mobile communications, and audio and video Web conferencing into a single platform that shares a common directory and common developer tools. Unified communications also takes advantage of standard communication protocols such as SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) to route communications to the right people on the right device.
Building on these communications standards, Microsoft is delivering a powerful set of unified communications capabilities that provide the framework for person-centric communications across locations and devices. The result is an approach to unified communications that is:
Personal and intuitive: One of our most important goals is to make communication and information access seamless and personal, no matter where you are or what device you are using. Presence-which provides information about your availability-will enable you to reach the right person on the first try. Intelligent information agent software that understands how you prefer to work will give you control over who can contact you, on what device and at what times. SIP standards and software-based call management will make communications richer and more intuitive, and provide seamless transitions from one communications mode to the next.
Convenient and integrated: Today, when you contact a colleague, you probably need to switch from the application you are working in to an address book and then to a device (like a telephone) or a different application (such as email). Microsoft unified communications will enable you to collaborate directly from the application where you are working. Integration with Microsoft Office will help make Microsoft Outlook the center for all types of communications experiences and provide seamless access to collaboration tools such as Microsoft SharePoint. By delivering a standards-based platform, Microsoft will enable developers to integrate communications into applications that provide even greater value, convenience and power.
Flexible and trustworthy: Microsoft unified communications will enable organizations to consolidate their communications systems into an integrated platform that utilizes a single identity for each user and provides a common management and compliance infrastructure. This will enable IT departments to significantly improve communications and collaboration capabilities while reducing complexity and lowering total cost of ownership. Built on a platform that is secure and reliable, Microsoft unified communications technologies are already helping leading companies achieve groundbreaking TCO. Ebay, for example, has lowered its per-mailbox costs by 70 percent. At Nissan, collaboration technologies have helped save more than US$135 million. And Siemens has unified 130 business units into a single Active Directory.
With products like Microsoft Exchange Server, Microsoft Office Outlook and Microsoft Office Communicator, we have long been at the forefront of digital communications technologies. In the coming year, a new wave of communications products-including Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, Microsoft Office Communicator 2007, Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2007, Microsoft Communicator phones and Microsoft Office RoundTable-will enable companies to create an infrastructure what will transform the way they do business.
Unified Communications in the People-Ready Business
To get an idea of what the unified communications world will look like, watch the young people in your organization-particularly the ones who are fresh out of college. They’ve lived their entire lives in the digital age, communicating in real-time via text messaging and instant messages. For some of them, even email lacks the immediate gratification they expect when they want to communicate with someone. To this generation, the desktop phone has about as much relevance as an electric typewriter does for those of us a generation or two older.
Using cutting-edge communications technologies, this younger generation has created online communities based on shared interests. They keep in constant contact with the people they care about, no matter where they are located. They create, collect and share digital content and information-music, pictures, news, video. It’s all a testament to the power and immediacy of today’s digital technology.
It’s also perfect training for the New World of Work. Instead of online communities based on shared interests, when they join your company, they’ll build virtual work teams that span the globe. The list of important people they keep in touch with will expand to include your customers. In addition to music and pictures, they’ll share reports and presentations created in collaboration with colleagues and business partners.
As this generation moves into the workforce, they expect to continue using the devices they’ve grown up with. Organizations that can’t meet this expectation will be at a sharp disadvantage as talented young people choose to work for companies that recognize the value of a new generation of communications innovations.
Companies that do provide the unified communications framework that these young people expect will see incredible benefits. Recruiting young talent will be easier, of course. But the gains will be much broader. Unified communications technology will help companies raise productivity and respond more rapidly to changing business conditions. These technologies will also enable organizations to create closer ties to customers, develop innovative products more quickly and reduce costs.
Ultimately, unified communications is about delivering a new way of doing business that recognizes that people are more important than processes. And it is about creating a New World of Work where technology unleashes the passion and potential that each one of us brings with us every day when we go to work.
What do you think Bill’s really saying here? Do you think Microsoft has a relevance problem with this New World of Work that seems more characterized by open source tools like Firefox, slick Web-based applications like Google Spreadsheets, and the rise of search and deprecation of “custom home pages”?
Finally, is it just me, or do you also feel that there are eerie “Brave New World” and “1984” overtones in their new phrase The New World of Work too?
I didn’t catch the scent of fear that you’ve detected, but this planned shift in direction does seem like a bit of flailing, IMHO.
MS would basically become a telco? Or some kind of “universal remote” for communications? Shudder… Looking at their history of feature bloat and security flaws, they’d be about the last place I’d want to trust with all my communications.
It is conspicuous that this does seem to be a major shift in direction, maybe even taking precendence over operating systems and software. But remember, this word is coming out just as Gates is taking a powder as head of MS. Maybe this shift is someone else’s baby, and Gates is deliberately midwifing it halfheartedly?
– Amy Gahran
This is actually one of the more coherent of Bill Gates State of the Technology addresses.
It’s clear to me. Too much time and money is going into too many devices. We are moving towards the one phone which will unify all our different cell numbers with a single voicemail box. I can also see maintaining status for everything (telephone, IM, video conference, everthing else) in one place as very useful.
The difficulty is that for different levels of people you need to maintain different status levels. I.e. I’d like my girlfriend and sister and best friend to be able to reach me at times where I wouldn’t be taking outside and/or business calls.
Differentiating it with Personal and Business status would be a start but even that’s not enough. Maintaining one’s status across two, three or more kinds of status doesn’t sound like much fun.
Back to leaving voicemail then.
Summing up: Even Bill Gates wants to know how to break out of telephone tag.