The Battle for Unified Communications Heats Up

Last week, a flurry of announcements about IM, chat and group messaging services preceded the coming showdown at SXSW next week. Startups like GroupMe and Yobongo will try to make their name there, just like Foursquare and Twitter did in years past. Synchronous communications (such as mobile group chat) are the latest battleground in the war over unified communications, but no matter how clever and fun those apps are, they’re not the real contenders. Rather, technology platform players like Google, Microsoft and Facebook are fighting to see what company supplies a user’s communications control panel — and a scrappy Skype can’t be ignored either.

The winner will gain an application that its users access constantly. A unified communications hub offers potential customer lock-in through habit and the effort required to switch both to and from the service. Om wrote that by controlling a user’s synchronous interactions –- sharing experiences that replicate reality –- Google could fix its social media flops and beat Facebook. A unified communications hub could be the launchpad to do just that.

A successful communications control panel will integrate three key components:

  • Universal communications channels. It should handle communications both real-time and asynchronous, one to one and multi-party, and across different channels: voice, email, text, video. IMs should convert to SMS messages if the receiver is away from his computer or smartphone. Email and messaging from Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo are good at this already.
  • Contact management. Besides just storing contacts and their various addresses, a universal communications hub increasingly needs to manage groups. It’s even better if that doesn’t require a user to work too hard. Facebook is attempting to get users to tag group members rather than make lists and Google’s Gmail prioritization learns from behavior. Location-based services and social graphs about a user’s relationships and preferences will play a big role here.
  • Presence management. People need better control over managing their availability. With chat and IM, you’re either available to all or not, and you have to manually screen your phone calls. Integrating contact groups and presence, a person could make himself available in real time for family in the evening, but available to co-workers only via email.

See what’s not working, and how the contenders stack up, at my weekly column.

Image courtesy of: flickr user goodold

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