Vendors embracing mobility devices, the growing use of chatbots and artificial intelligence (AI), and increasing challenges to Slack are among trends that emerged this year in unified communications and collaboration.
Vendor RingCentral and Raul Castanon-Martinez, senior analyst of enterprise mobility at 451 Research, have kept an eye on UC/collaboration this year, and shared with Channel Partners their insights on current trends and 2017 predictions.
“Workplaces being defined by four walls is a thing of the past,” said Kira Makagon, RingCentral’s executive vice president of innovation. “Moving forward, employees will gravitate to a ‘hub workplace’ design. We will see a proliferation of technologies designed for the new workplace that exponentially increase collaboration capacity [among] workers to optimize productivity, accelerate innovation and foster a community.’’
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There were the industry- and master-agent unique M&A, such as ScanSource acquiring Intelisys, and X4 and smaller master agents uniting with larger master agents like Sandler Partners for a leg up on the competition, said Zane Long, RingCentral’s vice president of channel sales.
“There were land grabs made by private equity/venture firms, and even publicly held organizations, in the UC industry to dominate the marketplace, ranging from competitive to quite controversial,” he said. “Teams are being picked, and the question at hand is who will bond together in solidarity for 2017 to hold strongly onto their portion of the rapidly growing cloud communications space. We’ve seen some companies being shopped around and others in bankruptcy news. Who will the next alliance be? Who will those partners now adopt to sell?”
Vendors are redefining their collaboration portfolios to challenge the “explosive” growth that communication startup Slack has shown in the last two years, Castanon-Martinez said.
“Microsoft Teams and Google’s G Suite are stepping up to the challenge; this is evident from the commonalities they show in the user experience with Slack,” he said. “For example, with features such as ‘channels’ (Slack) vs. ‘teams’ (Microsoft), support for third-party extensions, the integration of AI and machine learning, and the use of chatbots to automate tasks.”
“Changing demand for UCaaS is coming from customers, which is creating a bubble-up effect in the channel,” Long said. “Organizations are initiating conversations with their trusted IT advisers (channel partners) about moving not just core data-driven applications, but also their business communications systems to the cloud. Increasingly, I hear customers say that going forward they will be ‘cloud first’ and ‘cloud only’ when it comes to all things IT. In 2017, we’ll begin to see an increase in this customer-to-partner demand behavior, which will ultimately drive new channel business models.”
A lot of attention will be paid to the player that will emerge with a “truly UC and collaboration experience for end-users,” Long said.
“Whoever ‘owns’ this will have the best hand and be the most attractive date at the party that all the partners and customers will gravitate toward,” he said.
Vendors are aggressively pursuing the use of AI to provide relevant information and context into workflows, Castanon-Martinez said.
“For example, AI will support search functionalities within a workflow with suggestions for relevant files based on recent activity or those that team members were most recently engaged with over chat,” he said.
Today’s business cloud community is successful because of the various business-application integrations that make greater work productivity possible, Long said.
“But this is still a nascent concept in channel sales,” he said. “As this trend continues to unfold and enterprises adopt interoperable platforms, channel partners will realize that there is more to sell beyond the software. An integrated business needs integrated solutions, and only those vendors that offer up an open platform will win the business.”
“A key trend with UC is that this year we finally saw vendors fully embrace mobile devices and incorporating these as endpoint devices delivering the full UC capabilities that you get on a desk phone,” Castanon-Martinez said. “While there had been many considerable innovations in the last few years, mobile … remained somewhat distant and isolated from the UC mothership, with limited capabilities. Vendors like Dialpad and Verizon One Talk are now delivering truly mobile-first and mobile-centric UC solutions.”
The channel model of selling hybrid traditional on-premises hardware with cloud-based infrastructure and capabilities is coming to a halt, Long said.
“The value proposition for cloud is too great, and in particular, for cloud communications,” he said. “According to a recent No Jitter report, more than half of companies surveyed said they currently use or will be using the cloud for their UC needs in the next 12 months. Over the course of next year, we will see a major shift in the way channel executives model their business, both from a sales and services perspective. We’ll see the channel redefine the model for technology services – blending both conventional and emerging IT approaches – to achieve long-term success, and less tightrope walking/more cloud conversion among mid- and large-size enterprises.”
This year, chatbots and AI became two of the hottest topics, particularly for customer and employee engagement, Castanon-Martinez said. Bots hold “great potential” and eventually will take their place in the enterprise, “but we expect this will take longer than initially anticipated,” he said.
“We can expect these will continue to evolve, but the real productivity gains will take at least a couple of years to come,” he said.
Partners need the “right sales support and enablement” in order to be successful, Long said. It isn’t enough to have just an amazing product or the richest commissions, because if partners are not fully enabled to really market it, “they will not position your product first,” he said.
“The cloud communications marketplace is crowded and the demand for these competing solutions is evident,” he said. “Vendors need to think partner enablement first, making it easy to transact to keep their partners transacting and gaining market share for their solutions.”