A Fresh Look at UC
A few days ago, I had the pleasure to visit Aastra’s Concord, ON, headquarters and to meet again with Tony Shen, Aastra’s Co-CEO, President and COO. I must admit, he is quite different from other executives I interact with! His practical, down-to-Earth talk is in complete contrast with the inflated marketing bravado of most other high-ranking individuals in the industry.
I also enjoyed listening to Jason Andersson, Head of Aastra’s Center of Excellence for Applications, brief me about Aastra’s current UC strategy and portfolio using Aastra’s ViPr videoconferencing technology. Thank you, Jason, for going back to the office at 9 pm Swedish time to do this video call for me! I have to say video really adds to the quality of the conversation. It helps establish a rapport with the other participants and be more productive. Although I found the ViPr quite good, the Aastra folks hinted at the upcoming launch of a next-gen product that will help bring better and much more affordable video to the mass market.
So where does Aastra stand today in the global communications market? According to our recent research, in 2009, Aastra was among the top 6 market participants in terms of total PBX and IP PBX line shipments and revenues and IP desktop phone shipments. It has a large installed base it can leverage for future growth. It is also on track to gradually consolidate and synchronize its multiple product lines over the next couple of years. But how does it differentiate? What does it do better than its competitors?
It is tempting to quote Shen who addressed the above questions by saying “We all sell sugar,” referring to the fact that communications have become a commodity, adding “we are just easier to do business with.” He strongly believes that Aastra’s main competitive advantage is in delivering technologies tailored to local customer needs and its ability to use local resources who speak the language and best understand the peculiarities of the specific market. “The French buy French”, Shen elaborated, pointing to one reason why Aastra is doing so well in France, whereas Ericsson before couldn’t (and where U.S. vendors are struggling, too).
Aastra has also adopted a very pragmatic approach to UC. While the rest of the market has gotten a little carried away with the desktop-centric approach spearheaded by Microsoft (as it best serves its purposes), Shen and his team see little demand for soft clients. As I have indicated in other blog posts and presentations, I also think it will take a few years for soft clients to populate the marketplace and become a more commonly used interface. It will not be until customers deploy a larger number of advanced communications and collaboration applications such as IM, presence and conferencing, that they will see the value in the unified desktop client. For most users, a basic softphone provides little more than a convenient alternative when travelling. Yet, Aastra is looking to keep up with its competitors and potential customer demand and will soon be launching InTouch Plus, an advanced client that can be used both for voice and IM. So, if you are looking for an OCS-like experience and you believe in convergence at the desktop – Aastra will have a solution for you later this year.
Aastra sees greater potential in mobility. In fact, according to Shen’s definition, UC is more about integrating corporate and mobile voice communications, than it is about the desktop client. Aastra offers both mobile PBX extensions and a solid portfolio of VoWLAN and DECT capabilities, which can meet both outdoor and indoor mobility requirements. Although Frost & Sullivan’s definition of UC is quite client-centric as well, I have to agree that mobile smartphones have a greater potential than desktop clients in replacing the desktop phone as a primary communications device.
Aastra is also one of the few telephony vendors heavily promoting the voice interface. I thought voice navigation remained somewhat confined to the IVR and auto attendant space. Shen, however, gave me some interesting examples of his vision for speech, which included voice navigation of calendars and folders. When I think of the time I waste looking for documents, this sounds like a life-saver to me. Also, the ability to schedule a meeting over the phone, speaking commands such as “book me a meeting with Joe at 2 pm on July 3rd” may be where the market is going next.
Aastra is also offering some interesting collaboration capabilities with its recently launched InReach social networking software. It enables employees to create various interest or project groups where they can post comments (“micro-blogs”) and share files and ideas. This software will eventually become integrated with InTouch Plus, the advanced UC client, so users can IM each other, see status updates and pictures, etc.
Although it feels like Aastra is lacking that single defining characteristic that will differentiate it in the marketplace – such as Microsoft’s message around software-based communications or Cisco’s one-stop-shop approach, for example – it may very well be that Shen and his team have identified a successful growth formula that is not based so much on marketing, but on practical, customer-centric strategies. In the SMB market especially, its local approach is far more important than technology superiority or marketing clout. Of course, this is not to say that Aastra’s technologies are not competitive, it is just to reinforce Shen’s pragmatic view of the commoditization of communications.
Shen stated that Aastra seeks to evolve its portfolio around four main tenets: the voice interface, mobility, video and security. Although I believe these have a very different value for different users, they seem like potential growth opportunities and differentiators for Aastra.
In my opinion, Aastra’s open, standards-based approach and ability to integrate its endpoints and applications with other vendors’ technologies could be its ultimate key to success. Going forward, an accelerated portfolio harmonization roadmap and a stronger message around the benefits it can deliver to larger businesses with disparate, multi-vendor environments could help it maintain and grow its market share in the communications marketplace.