From a single source on your desktop, you can survey your entire working world. The opening sentence of an email from your team leader fills one corner, a discussion thread from your colleagues scrolls down in real-time on the opposite side. Your own project status sits neatly in the middle, ready to update as you check off another task, and a video call icon is flashing in the bottom right corner, letting you know a teammate wants a quick face-to-face.
That was part of the promise of unified communications pushed by high-end video conferencing and IT providers. It demanded complex infrastructure and dedicated, expensive hardware, but would seamlessly bring together every aspect of a company’s digital communications.
Instead, however, the scenario above was made reality by a single app, Slack, that came out of nowhere several years ago to create a new genre of business tools under the banner of workplace collaboration.
The resulting friction between workplace collaboration, unified communications, and video conferencing will shape the modern office. In fact, all three are about to meet in an industry-defining collision.
A Simpler Digital Workplace
Slack isn’t the complete answer that unified communication was meant to be. It isn’t as elegant, nor does it properly stitch together the internal and external business worlds. It might be, however, close enough and user-friendly enough to make the average business stop searching for high-tech perfection.
Its popularity is undeniable. It has 4 million daily active users, and 1.25 million paid subscribers. More indicative of its importance is the rash of copycats it has inspired–and these mimics are some of the biggest names in tech. Microsoft’s version, Teams, has been sold to 30,000 businesses, and Facebook’s clone, Workplace by Facebook, is being used by 14,000 more.
In fact, Slack operates a lot more like the traditional Facebook than it does any unified communications wizardry. Once you’ve downloaded the app you can integrate all the software and hardware (simple items like webcams, not complex in-room hubs) needed to do everything from create a document to attend a video conference.
That simplicity is why industry experts think workplace collaboration will change the very meaning of the term unified communications.
One Prediction for Video Conferencing and Unified Communications
Scott Wharton is a tech veteran. As vice president and general manager of Logitech Video Collaboration, he’s developing products for an evolving workplace. His team is making smaller, simpler video conferencing cams and consoles, as evidenced by their collaboration with Microsoft on the Skype Room Systems, to cater for a more flexible market.
And Wharton recently noted that the appeal of work collaboration tools will greatly impact the industry.
“Workspace collaboration will become the biggest battleground for enterprise communication. The market will keep consolidating on the high end, with Microsoft and Cisco and the like, while new challengers will include Slack and Google. At the same time, the worlds of video conferencing, UC and workplace messaging will collide into a single interface.
“The market will abandon the term ‘Unified Communications’ en masse, moving instead to variations on ‘team collaboration,’ ‘intelligent communication,’ ‘persistent communication,’ etc. In fact, vendors will race to claim market leadership while distancing themselves from UC and painting the competition as ‘traditional UC vendors.’ They will rehash the value propositions and promises made for UC and claim that the new Holy Grail of enterprise communications will be achieved through this new paradigm.”
If he is right, future development of video conferencing and workplace communications is going to follow one very old mantra–keep it simple.
The Future of Workplace Collaboration
What we may be left with is a crude approximation of what unified communications could have been. While Polycom creates state-of-the-art telepresence displays, and Cisco delivers new ways to interact during a video call, employees on the ground in offices are messaging and video calling from their desktops with Slack and its descendants.
The simpler solution lets employees collaborate in real-time from anywhere, including home, without moving from their desks. If they need to be on the same side of a video call they are preferring to decamp to small, shared huddle rooms that conserve space and don’t require any IT department support to operate.
The new challenge, under Wharton’s vision, will be to continue innovation within these almost DIY conditions. Next generation video and collaboration technologies like augmented and virtual reality will have to be intuitive and non-invasive so as not to disturb the workplace flow–having to don a pair of goggles every time you make a video call isn’t practical.
Whatever comes next will also have to include the rising Bring Your Own Device movement. And finally, a bridge needs to be found between the desktop and the external business world. It could be as simple as patching into group video calls, with in-camera green screening to clean up callers’ backgrounds, or as complex as creating an entirely digital meeting place, as some virtual reality specialists–Altspace VR, for one–are trying to do.
Ultimately, we’ll get a clearer vision of our workplace future once the dust settles from the impending collision between high-minded unified communications and practical workplace collaboration.