Old habits die hard with this post. Real-time collaboration was one of my first research areas when I became an analyst – specifically web conferencing tools. Last week, when Salesforce acquired DimDim, I scanned a lot of the initial reports and analysis of the deal. Assessments fell all across the board in terms of its implications – some positive, some skeptical. However I have not yet caught an article yet that looked at the decision-criteria issues strategists will need to address. Below, I’ve outlined some of the those issues organizations should consider when this type of situation arises in the market:
Instant Messaging (IM) & Presence
Application vs. Infrastructure
The industry views IM as an infrastructure service (rather than an application tool) and as a feature-set within a Unified Communications platform. An IM function within an application platform creates numerous overlap situations with existing IM and presence infrastructure (e.g., user experience, costs, security, help desk support, change management, development, etc). Decision-makers can allow for exceptions from IT standards (if they exist) when there is unique business value offered by an embedded IM/presence capability. However, the organization needs to realize that there is no displacement as a result – that is – nothing goes away with the addition of an application-specific IM/presence system.
There is no standard for how IM and presence platforms interoperate “behind the firewall”. Enterprise IM platforms do not naturally “plug and play” to exchange messages and share presence information. Integration requires vendor cooperation to deliver a supportable configuration. The implication to organizations considering an application-level IM/presence solution, is creation of a “walled garden” where users need to use two different IM/presence client experiences.
There is a standard for how organizations can leverage gateways to interoperate with public IM systems (e.g., Yahoo, AOL, Google, Microsoft) and other external IM systems. Usually, organizations are looking for vendors to provide a gateway to act as a policy control and enforcement point. The reason for a gateway of some type is to apply security and compliance policies, as well as to control how the identity of internal users are represented to the outside world.
In many situations, organizations need to monitor, log, audit, and keep for historical purposes, IM session information to satisfy communication, compliance or other regulatory policy. Often, IM/presence vendors work with third-party vendors that focus on this space to deliver an end-to-end archival and records management solution.
Organizations have come to expect IM/presence platforms to integrate with desktop productivity tools (office suites, e-mail clients). They also expect integration with enterprise portals. The ability to “presence enable” applications and offer a “click to IM/call/conference/etc” type capability is also a well-known requirement. UC platforms also need to offer a profile card of users that can be integrated and displayed across a variety of applications.
Many of the same collisions summarized above also occur in the area of web conferencing:
Web conferencing is considered part of a unified communications platform. Organizations likely already have a conferencing solution. Adding an additional capability that is embedded within a particular application creates overlap with existing investments (audio/video conferencing, VoIP) unless there is a compelling difference or specialized applications (e.g., e-learning/LMS integration).
Web conferencing vendors have been around for some time and many have added additional modules on top of their horizontal infrastructure to meet situational needs for sales, marketing, training, and other audiences. An application-specific solution can provide deeper integration with the processes owned by that platform but creates a tension with management desires to leverage existing infrastructure that is “good enough” for the majority of use cases.
Web conferencing vendors have had to integrate with office productivity suites, e-mail/calendaring clients and even with enterprise portals (“My Conferences”, “My Recordings” portlets). Users generally need browser and desktop integration to effectively organize and schedule meetings. Also, the ability to have pre/post workspace integration is also desirable so people can share information before and after the web conference. Application integration for campaign management or for customer service purposes can also be necessary depending on how the web conferencing system is used.
The newer area of opportunity for real-time collaboration is integration with social platforms. The focus of social software to-date has been mostly asynchronous (e.g., blogs, wikis, community sites). The natural progression of unified communication and social software is to converge in ways that makes sense (e.g., micro-blogging, activity streams). There are compelling hybrid use case scenarios emerging for a converged solution based on unified communications and social platforms that take advantage of mobility and social networking. However, such converged solutions do not eliminate the need for solutions to address many of the foundational issues outlined above – especially those concerning integration, interoperability, security, and compliance. In other words, you still need a architecture that is not biased by a particular application workload or collection of workloads. A "platform" approach (cloud or on-premises or both) needs to handle a broad array of business requirements.
In summary, this event represents a classic horizontal versus vertical debate. When application platforms “own” capabilities that are considered common services (infrastructure), organizations need to identify the unique business value of those features and determine whether that value is greater than the overlap and complexity caused by adding redundant capabilities. Are those capabilities locked into the application itself, or are they going to become broadly available (and if so, is the application platform designed to do so). It is rare that something "goes away" when an application platform takes on infrastructure capabilities. In some cases, it may. In other cases, it may not. However, vendor due diligence is required and hopefully the points above will help decision makers in that regard.