Analysis: Convergence 3.0. The True ICT Age is Upon Us at Last

Maren Bennette of CQC Consulting says, if it weren’t the registered name of an obscure software package I‘m sure the vendors would have grabbed the term Convergence 3.0 for their marketing campaigns by now.

“I am getting tired of the expression ‘Web 3.0’ and its like, not least because it’s misleading: we’re on Web 7.0 by my count!

But Convergence 3.0 would at least be a more accurate definition of where we are when it comes to bring computing and communications together. First the two ‘converged’ on digital electronics hardware, though of course they were separated by the user department responsible for the equipment and even by legislation: there were never any regulations about who could install a computer, unlike telecommunications devices.

A long while later voice, data and video network traffic converged. LAN switches, routers and gateways now all use IP to transport packets regardless of what those packets are filled with. A certain networking company called Cisco can claim the lion’s share of the kudos for this, though they were by no means the first to market with their products.

And now we are at the start of the third phase of convergence: when business and consumer applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail, v-mail, IM, web collaboration and web pages will all have standards-based multi-modal text, voice and video communications capabilities embedded within them. All this ICT power will be available to the user on just one device if he or she so wishes. That’s what I mean by Convergence 3.0. And UC? Well, that’s the name the industry is giving it.

The Clash of the Titans: let battle commence.

This new age of information and communications technology is going to be a golden one, at least for some. Indeed it so rich in opportunity two companies have tried to monopolise the term ‘Unified Communications’: the aforementioned Cisco and software giant Microsoft. Both are after their ‘fair share’ of a market variously estimated between £17.5 and £23.5 billion, by 2010.

But there are rough times ahead for some vendors and by extension, their channel partners. Because of its complexity, because of the strategic importance of UC to the customer – if a unified communications system goes down, so does the company using it – and because of the sheer magnitude of the task of implementing it, UC will sort the wheat from the chaff like no other communications technology has done before. In three years time the ICT landscape will have changed dramatically with some major vendors and partners disappearing altogether and many others forced to change their business models almost beyond recognition.

Out of this maelstrom, it’s my opinion that Microsoft is best placed to become the leading UC vendor, with Cisco and others such as Avaya and Mitel playing a supporting role. On the channel side, I believe that the traditional resellers selling hardware, software and services will be marginalised. We are finally seeing the dawning of the age of the application service provider; be they traditional carriers, companies offering hosted IPT and UC, or maybe even vendors moving into the ‘communications software as a service’ space, such Cisco is doing with its Webex acquisition. This move to applications plays right to Microsoft’ strengths.

Am I biased?

You may be forming the opinion I am somewhat biased in favour of Microsoft here. Not so. I have never worked for them in any capacity and don’t hold any MSFT shares. The same can’t be said of Cisco, for which I worked for 10 years and whose stock I still own. So why is it that I think the Washington software company will ultimately win the unified communications war with the Californian networking giant and the other major communications vendors?

Well, it is simple. Whilst Cisco ‘owns’ the network and has a significant (but not overwhelming) share of the IP telephony market, it doesn’t ‘own’ the data centre or the desktop, as Microsoft does. Also, though Cisco has a very impressive quantity of partners in both its channel and ecosystem, Microsoft’s reseller and ISV base is almost ten times as large – which means a massive footprint of financially motivated companies pitching the Microsoft line.

Last but not least, Microsoft has managed to make most of its enemies into allies, albeit uneasy ones: every single major vendor of UC and IP telephony products including Alcatel-Lucent; Avaya; Cisco themselves; Ericsson; Mitel; NEC Phillips, Nortel (more than any other) and Siemens either has or is actively developing products that work with Microsoft UC products. And by the way, those other companies all see Cisco as their major competitor and would happily help to pull them down. It’s hard to lose a war when even your competitors are actively supporting you against your main enemy.