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Streaming Meets Unified Communications: Convergence Is on the Way
Social media, online video platforms, and knowledge management systems are coming together to create the future of enterprise communications.
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Will social media and streaming platforms merge to meet enterprise communications needs? For almost 2 decades, enterprise video solutions have promised a day when they integrate seamlessly with videoconferencing, digital signage, and other enterprise communications solutions. It’s taken a while, but that day is here.

Well, it’s almost here. About 2 years ago, we could at least see it on the horizon. As 2017 begins, the small dot on the shimmering horizon has begun to take shape, a silhouetted outline of a lone cowboy, riding his trusty stallion and brandishing a mean sidearm...

Truth be told, it actually looks more like a cluster of rack-mounted equipment, with lots of wires and a few managed switches. But it’s still a bit far off to make out whether that’s software-defined networking (SDN) on our unified communications cowboy’s hip or a series of discrete hardware components.

If you’re at all involved in enterprise streaming or videoconferencing, you’ve undoubtedly heard the term “unified communications” (UC) used in several different ways, often obliquely and to a particular vendor’s best advantage. In some ways that nebulousness is by design.

Wikipedia sums up UC as “a marketing buzzword” that covers a series of integrated real-time enterprise communications services: conferencing (both audio and video), instant messaging, presence information, voice, mobility features, audio, fixed-mobile convergence, desktop sharing, data sharing, call control, and speech recognition. At the end of the list, almost recursively, Wikipedia notes all these real-time enterprise communications services can be integrated with non-real-time communication services such as (drumroll, please) unified messaging (UM).

Where’s streaming in that long list of enterprise communications services? And does it fit in the real-time or non-real-time communications bucket? This article attempts to answer those two questions. Starting with the assumption that all communications matter, we will explore how streaming can unify a number of UC and UM use cases. Along the way, we will touch on a few topics, like latency and WebRTC, that deserve their own articles and expanded explanations—and get at least some coverage elsewhere in this issue of Streaming Media magazine.

Social Media and the Enterprise

Let’s first start with some insight on the intersection of streaming video and unified communications, thanks to work done by Wainhouse Research. Steve Vonder Haar (right), a senior analyst with Wainhouse, commissioned a study of 1,801 working adults in the United States as part of the research into UC, streaming video, and other enterprise platforms. The survey was a follow-up to an April 2016 report wherein Wainhouse Research surveyed 1,512 corporate executives to gauge demand for streaming solutions that enable one-to-many distributions of content originating from UC applications such as Skype for Business, Cisco Jabber, and IBM Sametime.

This newer 4Q 2016 Wainhouse Research “Enterprise Web Communications Survey” was designed as a true scientific survey. It had up to 380 different segmentations, with guaranteed participation in specific categories—150 from IT, 100 from professional services, 85 from financial services—as well as intentional oversamples of IT and educational participants.

Wainhouse asked which two communications channels survey participants found most effective for lead generation. Surprisingly, traditional email and banner ads, which are often the primary channels for lead generation, did not rank as high as Facebook and YouTube. In fact, as this chart shows, Facebook topped the list of multiple-choice lead generation options, with 49 percent of survey participants noting it as one of their most effective lead-generation channels, followed by YouTube at 39 percent of all participants. Traditional email was next, with LinkedIn at 21 percent taking the fourth position.

“I believe the social media platforms have an opportunity to support the enterprise and generate revenues in ways they don’t yet comprehend,” says Vonder Haar. “Social media platforms today are largely consumer-focused, similar to the AOLs and Yahoos of yesteryear. As we’ve seen in the past, when a communications platform is solely focused on the consumer market, they tend to decline and ultimately die off when attitudes change.”

To his way of thinking, Vonder Haar says that social media platforms can avoid irrelevancy or death by expanding their reach beyond user’s personal communications and in to those same users’ enterprise communications. “Social media is at a crossroads, with slowing consumer growth, and need to find ways to monetize their audiences,” says Vonder Haar. “Yet they have the tools to solve the most pressing business problem: delivering a substantial audience on a platform that’s consumer-tested.”

Vonder Haar went on to mention that social media platforms have the audiences and the video creation and distribution platforms, what he calls “the raw material for aggregating video distribution that delivers business benefit.”

So, if the Wainhouse Research insights from its recent survey are correct, social media platforms may turn out to be online video platforms (OVPs) in the near term. And unlike traditional OVPs, these social platforms have both the tools and the eyeballs to provide the enterprise market to battle-tested platforms for webinars and webcasts.

What if the social platforms opted to move beyond just lead generation and in to corporate communications as well? That might be one reason that Microsoft was keen to own LinkedIn: LinkedIn provided a ready-made audience. Another version of the narrative, though, says that Microsoft already has the video communications tools, which LinkedIn might need to catch up with Facebook and other consumer-focused social platforms.

Skype for Business

One of those tools widely regarded as integral to unified communications is Skype for Business.

“When survey participants were asked about their UC platform of choice,” says Vonder Haar, “Skype for Business is definitively identified as the market share leader in unified communications.”

The technology formerly known as Microsoft Lync (up to and including Lync 2013) is now actively being integrated into hardware solutions from a disparate group of hardware suppliers. NewTek was one of the first out of the gate, with its TalkShow product that allowed incoming Skype calls to be cleaned up, including color and exposure correction, and output via a broadcast-based serial digital interface (SDI) as a feed for a live broadcast video mixer.

NewTek calls TalkShow a tool to enhance “video calling for professional production workflows,” and its intent is to add its video signal correction magic to the widely used communications platform to create “Skype interviews that look great—and sound amazing.”

While it’s not necessary for a Skype caller connecting to TalkShow to use the Skype for Business application, since TalkShow works just as well with the consumer Skype app, there are benefits to the enterprise-focused Skype app offered by Microsoft beyond just Skype-to-Skype calls on Android and iOS devices. For instance, the newest Skype for Business 6.10 app now provides a way to answer Skype for Business calls in the same way a user would answer a cellphone call: swiping “answer” on the lock screen.

That level of seamless integration extends to the ability to move between a standard cellphone call and Skype for Business, not unlike Apple’s own FaceTime Audio. Unlike Apple’s integrated VOIP app, though, Microsoft’s Skype for Business also integrates enterprise stalwarts like Active Directory and SharePoint. The ability to tie into other enterprise-standard communication services brings Microsoft back to the forefront of an enterprise landscape it created decades ago. The stickiness of PowerPoint and the subsequent uptake of Active Directory and SharePoint means that Microsoft is using Skype for Business to round out its enterprise ecosystem in a way that Apple did when it enhanced its stickiness in the consumer ecosystem by tightly integrating hardware and software into a single user experience.

NewTek’s TalkShow is designed to improve the video quality for Skype interviews and meetings.

User response to these unified communications features have been generally positive, with one user noting that using Skype for Business on Wi-Fi allows the user to see presentation content and praising Skype for Business as being “more reliable for seeing and joining meetings, transferring from the laptop when you have to get out the door, etc.,” compared with earlier versions of Skype for Business and Lync that did not integrate as tightly with SharePoint.

In an attempt to continue the uptake of Skype for Business, Microsoft has followed Google’s lead and begun to release beta versions and request feedback from users. Its new Skype Preview.com is a portal through which Microsoft encourages users to help “shape the future of Skype for Business” by offering early access to new products or features. “It enables your organization to get a sneak peek at what’s coming and to test out the new features in your own environment and give feedback before we release product builds to the general public,” the site states.

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