In the world of unified communications (UC) and hosted telephony, if you’re not innovating, you risk falling behind your competitors.
In the first of our three-part series, “UCaaS/Hosted Telephony Spotlight,” we look at 10 innovations and trends that are giving providers a competitive advantage. They range from the merging of UC and contact center, to increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), and facial recognition.
“Everything moves so fast and a vendor can fall behind if they’re not picking up on these things, and it’s the customers as well,” said Jon Arnold, principal analyst at J Arnold & Associates. “They don’t know how much they’re potentially missing by not getting all these things. Nobody can have every piece, certainly in-house. It’s becoming almost too late now to build new things from scratch. If you decide all of a sudden, ‘Oh, we’re going to add AI now to our conferencing application,’ and it might take you a year to build that out, it’s too late. You have to instead partner with someone who is already there because there are many choices that the customers have to buy with someone who already has it. So to protect your customer base, you have to find a way to be able to stay current.”
M&A has been very influential for driving innovation in UCaaS, said Raul Castanon, 451 Research’s senior analyst of workforce collaboration.
“A good example is Cisco, which has built its collaboration portfolio largely through acquisition, beginning with WebEx and Jabber 10 years ago and more recently with Accompany, MindMeld and Voicea,” he said. “Another interesting deal was 8×8’s acquisition of Wavecell, which should influence the company’s UCaaS road map with CPaaS capabilities.”
The customer is where the real pressure to innovate is coming from, said Rick Beckers, CEO of XaaS1 and member of the Channel Partners Editorial Advisory Board.
“As the younger generations move into and up through the workforce, they bring with them a familiarity with technology and an awareness that I would describe as ‘anything is possible’ because they have lived with tech devices all of their lives,” he said. “And they’ve seen that integration desired is usually achievable, so they move forward boldly and continue to knock down business barriers by using technology. UCaaS is just one of those innovation areas involving hosted communications. IoT is another communication innovation that, in my opinion, came from this same ‘customer demand’ pressure.”
The need for innovation has fostered more M&A, said Bryan Reynolds, TBI‘s director of sales operations, and editorial advisory board member. An example would be 8×8’s acquisition of Wavecell, he said.
“Vonage’s acquisition of Nexmo allowed them to be an early player in CPaaS, RingCentral’s partnership with Avaya beefed up (even more) their already-extensive portfolio,” he said. “Vonage incorporating their purchase of Over.ai into their solutions will have ripple effects on their capabilities to provide predictive analytics.”
“IT guys” increasingly are so stretched that all they can do is execute to keep the lights on, and when it comes to creative thinking and doing breakthrough innovations for their organizations, it’s getting harder to do that, Arnold said.
“So they tend to rely a lot on the vendors for that or through the channels to be on top of the next trends,” he said. “The enterprise buyers, I don’t think they’re the ones at the leading edge to say, ‘Hey, we know what’s coming next year, and so we’ve got to get that.’ I think it’s much more where the vendor and the channels can steer them. But even if we come out with this great new application, they still don’t really know if the market’s going to buy it. There’s a lot of uncertainty there, but you can’t afford to not try new things because you’re going to fall behind.”
Scroll through our list of 10 innovations below that are giving providers a competitive advantage.
Putting More U in Unified
The 2019 versions of the top UCaaS offerings now offer the unification of voice, video meetings, audio conferencing, instant messaging, file sharing, time sheet entry, customer resource management (CRM), task management and much more, Beckers said.
"For me, the integration into the very popular Microsoft Teams
(fastest adoption of a software product in Microsoft history) makes UCaaS deliver quickly and concisely in several key ways," he said. "XaaS1 was an early adopter of a hosted UCaaS solution that fully integrates with Teams. We’ve been on it for about 120 days now and the overall improvement in communication and efficiency of the company is plain to see. I couldn’t be more pleased."
UC, Contact Center Merging
The biggest trend is the blending of contact center and UC into an integrated offering, Arnold said.
"That’s been going on for awhile now, but it’s certainly been driving a lot of the traction right now, not just for the buyers, but also for the channels in that it gives them a more complete offering," he said. "Previously it was unthinkable to put the two in the same bucket, kind of like getting your home phone service from a cable provider, and now nobody thinks twice about it. It’s now put UC players into the contact center game who were normally not there and vice versa."
It's a CPaaS World
The biggest thing that TBI sees many UCaaS
providers going toward, and rightfully so, is a "CPaaS world," Reynolds said.
"The necessity for a more immersive, uninterrupted experience while customers are consuming technology has given way to innovations around this," he said. "No longer is it enough to provide voice service over the internet with a few features. It’s about how the advancements can push businesses to the next level while increasing ROI and employee/customer experience."
Breaking Boundaries with AI and ML
AI and ML are finally having a significant impact on the UCaaS road map with features and capabilities that redefine how teams communicate and collaborate, Castanon said.
"Vendors like Cisco
with cognitive collaboration and PGi
stand out as two examples where the use of AI and ML can support knowledge workers, removing friction from everyday tasks such as scheduling and managing meetings, and making and receiving calls," he said.
Intelligent assistants are increasingly prominent, such as AWS' Alexa for Business, which is now available on UCaaS platforms such as RingCentral Office
, and workplace devices from Poly including its Voyager 4200 UC headsets and the Trio meeting room phones, Castanon said.
"Microsoft also incorporated Cortana and third-party intelligent assistants into its new Surface earbuds," he said. "Another example is Google, [which] is leveraging its strengths in AI and ML to enable features such as the integration of Google Assistant with G Suite
, which allows users to get up-to-date information on their appointments using voice commands. It is still early days, but these capabilities are becoming a key differentiation for these vendors."
Speech Technology Advances
Speech recognition and technology are making voice more of an integral part of the collaboration process that’s not just about telephony, but other voice-driven applications, Arnold said. The speech and voice recognition market is expected to reach nearly $26.8 billion by 2025, according to Meticulous Research.
"It’s the idea that voice can make people more productive in more situations, so when you’re driving, you’re hands-free so you can at least use voice to do your work," he said. "More and more applications are voice-enabled so you could edit a document just using your voice, you could manipulate a spreadsheet just with voice commands, that kind of thing."
White-Label Phone Systems
White-label phone systems are having an impact in the MSP
world, Beckers said.
"MSPs like to brand their offerings in order to be seen as differentiating themselves to their customers," he said. "There are dozens of UCaaS providers that will allow you to brand their system as yours. There is value in that, but you have to be prepared to support the back-end switch. So this option remains popular for the MSPs and less so with the agents that don’t have a technical support staff that can do this for them."
Face recognition is important in any form of security, more so in public spaces, but enterprises can certainly use it, too, and not just for security, but to improve productivity as well, Arnold said.
"Some companies, Cisco in particular, use it as a way to make the process of authenticating you to join meetings faster," he said. "So instead of typing in keywords or passwords, it could be a biometric thing. Looking at the facial recognition or retina detection, these are applications that speed up processes that allow workflows to move faster. So if you only want certain people joining your meeting or your team, visual recognition could be one way of making that more efficient."
Integration is Key
A provider’s ability to integrate with other tools (such as Salesforce, Slack, Office 365, etc.) are key differentiators, Reynolds said.
"Not every provider offers everything, so ease of integration and effectiveness of integration are key to distinguishing services," he said. "Examples of providers include RingCentral, Twilio
, Nexmo and 8x8
Analytics in UCaaS
is an example of an innovation that will be relevant, but will take some time to catch on, Castanon said.
"Vendors like Cisco, Microsoft and Google have introduced analytics capabilities to understand how end users interact with each other and provide usage metrics," he said. "Given the nature of the tool, it makes sense that these tools will become more valuable over time."