Business Disruption in Document Communications – What Happened?

In the late 1990s, the Internet and the World Wide Web created massive technical disruption for the worlds of document communications and messaging. Now, nearly twenty years later, business communications looks much different than it did going into the Millennium and once major businesses such as the marketing of enterprise fax machines are deep into their long tail phase. In my last post, I noted several trends in both fax and email as the related standards communities pushed to transform these technologies for the new IP world. Let’s look at what happened.

One major driver of the success of fax in the Nineties was the classic network effect as postulated by Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe. In essence, Metcalfe had stated that a network became much more compelling as the number of connected devices increased.  In the Nineties, the fax machine vendors and computer fax companies were often on opposing sides in technical battles, but all of these companies benefited from Metcalfe’s network effect as it applied to the overall fax network. But as we crossed into the 21st century, fax machines designed to run on the circuit-switched phone network (aka the Public Switched Telephone Network or PSTN) had much less utility in an increasingly IP network connected world. As a result, physical fax machines began to disappear from larger enterprise offices and in smaller offices, they were often replaced by less expensive multi-function peripherals (MFPs), which were basically printers that also included fax and scanning features. This meant that the number of Group 3 fax devices in total at first plateaued and then began a decline. In essence, Metcalfe’s network effect played out in reverse. The fax machines and MFPs of the Nineties did not evolve to use the new IP fax standards, so as document communications moved to IP, these physical fax or MFP devices still only sent faxes over the PSTN and were less connected as IP communications became more prevalent.

If we consider the trends in computer-based fax, they played out differently. Companies like Brooktrout sold fax boards to independent software developers and the boards were incorporated in local area network solutions. These solutions also typically included tight integration with email.  By 2004, Fax over IP enabling technology started to be commercialized, using the ITU-T T.38 IP fax standards. T.38 had some technical issues, but it could use the same call control protocols — SIP, H.323 and H.248 — that were being adopted by the new Voice over IP networks, so T.38 became a popular choice for conveying fax over these VoIP networks. By contrast, the T.37 approach of Internet Fax over Email did not get much adoption, most likely because it didn’t mesh very well with Voice over IP.  The computer-based fax solutions that ran on Local Area Networks continued to have healthy growth in the first decade of the 2000s in large part due to the continued validity of fax as a legal document, perceived security compared to use of email over the Internet, a slow rampup in the use of digital signatures on other electronic documents and regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) which meshed well with receiving fax documents in electronic form (rather than on a paper tray).

During the same period, email use continued to grow, but rising issues such as lack of security and massive amounts of spam made the use of email outside of corporate subject to a number of hassles. As noted above, electronic signatures started to become available as a legal alternative to fax signatures, but didn’t gain widespread use until the past few years. As a result, enterprises tended to standardize on a particular commercial email package and communicate whenever possible over secured private IP networks and by making use of security tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

Now, in 2018, the messaging world is highly fragmented. Large enterprises have tended to choose unified communications eco-systems from large players like Microsoft, Cisco and Avaya, but even these solutions are rapidly evolving as the momentum is shifting toward pushing enterprise communications into the Cloud.  Hence, Microsoft is shifting its emphasis from Lync to Skype for Business and now onto Teams and other vendors such as Cisco are doing much the same.  Upstarts such as Slack have started by offering cloud-based team communications and have forced reactions from the traditional Unified Communications players.  As messaging has evolved, voice is now becoming less important and fax is now more of a niche play.  One thing I don’t see too much of is the use of business communications that can effectively cross the boundaries between organizations. In theory, Cloud-based communications could get us there, but the vision of the late Nineties of being able to communicate documents and other types of media effectively across the entire Internet has been hobbled by security, privacy and spam issues. We’ll have to see if the Cloud and better cross-network security mechanisms could form the foundation for approaches that will be superior to today’s highly balkanized communications landscape.

If you or your company have participated in the massive changes to the communications eco-system since the 1990s, feel free to weigh in with comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products and services to better address the rapidly changing business environment, you can reach me on LinkedIn or on our web site.

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Reshaping Enterprise Communications: A Tale of Two Companies

In my last few posts, I’ve described several factors which have encouraged communications solution providers to transition away from hardware and focus on software-based application solutions.

Let’s consider two companies and how they adjusted the path of their technical and business models to address these directions. Avaya is an example of a company whose solutions had a substantial amount of proprietary hardware around the time they split off from Lucent in the year 2000. Avaya had a leading market share in multiple markets targeted to enterprises, including PBXs, which provided telephone infrastructure for enterprises, and Call Centers, which used Avaya components to meet customer needs for highly scalable inbound and outbound communications. But the advent of IP-based technology and new protocols such as SIP began to change all of that. The mantra of IP-based communications was that voice was just another application that ran on an IP stack. This massive technical change was a major challenge for Avaya, since they’d built their business based on selling PBX and call center solutions based on their own hardware, but the cost of sustaining this business model was high. So starting around 2002, they executed a pivot to adjust to the new situation. First, they introduced new IP-based versions of their PBX technology ranging from IP phones to an IP-based PBX and a suite called IP Office for small to medium sized businesses. In parallel, they told potential partners that they wanted to move out of the hardware business and focus on value provided by their software. Third, they created a partner program, the Avaya DeveloperConnection program (later shortened to DevConnect), and encouraged partners to either build on or connect to Avaya solutions. As a result, Avaya was able to cultivate relationships with hardware appliance companies for products like media gateways and focus more on building out their application software. The DevConnect program also fit well with Avaya’s increased role as an integrator. Solutions for customers could be built using not only Avaya technology, but also DevConnect certified products. So Avaya had an approach to building out software-based solutions using IP, but they also had a large installed-base of hardware-based solutions, so they were not as nimble as some of their competitors.

The advent of SIP helped to encourage new market entrants into the communications software space. A prominent example was Microsoft. Starting around 2007, Microsoft introduced it’s new communication solution, Office Communication Server 2007 or OCS.  OCS used SIP as its backbone protocol and touted the ability for enterprises to eliminate the cost of a PBX and replace it by software running on Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) servers. Enterprises still needed to connect to the telephone networks run by service providers, which were heavily based on circuit-switched technologies, so Microsoft started its own partner and certification program to qualify 3rd party products such as media gateways. Microsoft also had a lot of marketing muscle, since their applications such as Microsoft Office were widely used within enterprises, so they had a ready audience among the information technology managers at customers. In 2010, Microsoft -re-branded their offer and called it Microsoft Lync. Microsoft quickly became a big player in the new Unified Communications market and began to take market share away from traditional PBX vendors such as Avaya. Microsoft also continued to be aggressive in cultivating relationships with 3rd party hardware partners, who added support for Lync compatible IP phones and newer IP-based products such as Session Border Controllers (SBCs). Microsoft has since re-branded Lync to be Skype for Business, but the underlying technology and business model is an evolution of Lync.

The market battle for leadership in communications for enterprises continues, but the momentum has shifted heavily to software-based solutions and most hardware components are provided by other vendors. One exception to this direction is Cisco. They have maintained a strong presence in the hardware side of communications by virtue of their leading market position in routers and have incorporated additional functions such as media gateways and SBCs upon their routers. However, Cisco also has built their own software-based Unified Communications suites and Contact Center solutions, so they use the software-based applications model, but pair it up with Cisco network components to create their solutions.

In summary, the advent of SIP is one of several factors which have radically changed the landscape for communications solutions. In this post, we’ve considered how Avaya and Microsoft built their business strategies based on the strong move to IP-based software solutions over the last decade. In my next post, I’ll talk about another important technology development, virtualization, which is in the process of re-shaping how both application software and communications infrastructure products are being developed and brought to market today.

If you participated in the evolution described here, please feel free to weigh in with your comments. If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your application solutions or other communications products, you can reach me on LinkedIn.

 

Voice Development Models: A Journey Begins

During the past three years, I had product management responsibilities for products which covered the spectrum from hardware-centered to software-centered development.  In telecom, there’s been an evolution in development models as solution providers have taken a series of steps to gradually move away from hardware.  However, like many technical trends, there is a long tail as the older technology goes away only gradually.  In this post and others to follow, I’ll review models for voice applications at a high level and consider some steps along the way which have led to the software-oriented nirvana sought by many solution providers.

In the Nineties, voice development was often done with PCs at the center and embedded board hardware was an important component. The CPUs of the PCs ranged from models like the 386 on up to Pentium. Voice applications entailed lots of media processing, so voice boards with lots of Digital Signal Processors (DSPs) were critical to get scalable applications.  The DSPs did all of the heavy lifting for the media and the CPU of the PC was freed up to support the application side for solutions such as call centers, interactive voice retrieval and fax on demand.  Many of the applications developed during this time are still being used, though the actual PCs or servers may have been replaced and there may also have been some upgrades on the voice board hardware. Nonetheless, thousands of voice boards are still being sold to support these applications. On the software side, there were efforts to create industry standard Application Program Interfaces (APIs) such as S.100 from the Enterprise Computer Telephony Forum (ECTF) and T.611 from the International Telecommunications Union, but most of the boards were controlled using private APIs supplied by the board vendors.

In the model above, the boards and applications were all designed to work over the circuit-switched telephone network, which ranged from analog services (POTS or Plain Old Telephone Service) to digital approaches which began with the Integrated Systems Digital Network (ISDN) and continued with the Signaling System 7 (SS7) network overlay.  The phone companies worldwide assumed that these circuit-switched networks with Time-Division Multiplexing (TDM) and the related seven layer Open Systems Interconnect (OSI) models would be the focus going forward, replacing analog networks, and would perhaps be supplemented by new OSI stacks such as the Asynchronous Transport Method (ATM).

But a revolution had already begun as alternative flatter telecom stacks based on the upstart Internet Protocol  (IP) protocols were being used both for existing applications such as email and new applications like the Worldwide Web. In the telecom industry, a few companies began to explore running voice over IP networks, thus creating a new Voice over IP (VoIP) technical and business model for phone networks.  In the early days (from the late Nineties to the early 2000s), VoIP was mainly used to bypass existing long distance networks to reduce long distance charges, but the range of applications for IP soon began to expand.

At first, this looked like a great opportunity for the voice board manufacturers.  Now, they could add IP support to their boards or potentially just give software developers access to Ethernet ports on PC. An important new board category was created: the media gateway. These early media gateway boards allowed developers to use the existing circuit networks for most of their connections, but also tap into new IP networks where they existed.  Continuing on the same API trends, board vendors extended their private APIs to support IP in addition to TDM.  So now solution developers could run their solutions over both existing TDM and new IP networks, using these new hybrid boards which often could support voice, fax and tones.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how media gateways helped to kick off a new voice development model which accelerated the separation between software and hardware for voice and the new application category which became Unified Communications.

If you participated in the evolution described here, please feel free to weigh in with your comments.  If you’d like to explore strategies on how to evolve your solutions, you can reach me on LinkedIn.