The future of cloud collaboration Featured

9:01pm EDT May 31, 2011
The future of cloud collaboration

Hotmail, Microsoft’s Web-based e-mail application, can arguably be called the cloud’s very first “killer app.” Within a year of its launch in 1996, it had garnered several million customers.

But is the heyday of e-mail over? According to a recent study published by ComScore, a global source of digital intelligence, entitled 2010 U.S. Digital Year in Review, Web e-mail usage declined 8 percent in 2010. However, what is more noteworthy are the numbers broken down by age. Web e-mail usage declined 10 percent among those 35 to 54, 18 percent among Americans 25 to 34 and a whopping 59 percent for those under 24. The study also reported that text messaging increased by 68 percent. Since the young are viewed as early adopters, one conclusion could be that e-mail is going away and we are all going to text messaging. If you go solely by these two statistics, the future of e-mail doesn’t look good.

Smart Business spoke to cloud expert Mark Swanson, CEO of Telovations, Inc., a “Cloud Collaboration” company, for his insight on the implications of this shift away from e-mail for businesses.

Do you think e-mail is going away?

E-mail isn’t going away, it is evolving. E-mail is just a form of communicating, like the telephone or a letter. When e-mail came about, it quickly supplemented the phone and the letter because it was quick, asynchronous and could be sent to multiple people. The phone and mail did not go away though. E-mail will still be used in many situations; it is just that other technologies are replacing it for certain things.

What is replacing e-mail?

I think the biggest reason for the decline of e-mail is the rise of social media. This is evidence in the same report, which now shows Facebook as the leading cloud application on the Web. The problem with e-mail is that it tends to be too sales-focused. It pushes messages on you regardless of who you are. Just look at your inbox. In mine, at least 90 percent of the messages are some form of spam. It makes it hard to get to the messages I want.

Social media offers a more ‘human’ and personal approach that is more effective today. Advertisements are off to the side and in context with who I am and what I am interested in. Spam does not interrupt my communication stream. Social media also allows me to collaborate with multiple colleagues, allowing for multiple inputs and rich context. The ability to collaborate rather than just communicate is really the next killer app of the Web.

Why is ‘collaboration’ replacing ‘communication’ on the Web?

I think it is a natural evolution. Communication implies conscious direction — one has to specify who they want to communicate with. With collaboration, others can share in that conversation and provide information and context that was previously locked up in e-mail threads.

No longer are we tethered to logging into our Web mail accounts on our PCs. We can choose our device — PC, phone, tablet — along with the collaboration tool we want to use — voice, video, text message, instant message, social media and, yes, even e-mail.

How are corporations dealing with all these tools of collaboration?

The increasing demand for mobile devices and cloud-based collaboration presents real challenges for IT staff. Not only must IT departments set up and manage these tools to meet specific business requirements, they also face the challenge of how to securely extend access to mobile devices and the cloud. This is where cloud-based unified collaboration (UC) really helps. By using vendors who already have these integrated in the cloud, organizations can quickly deploy cloud UC tools to make their organizations more productive.

What is unified collaboration?

Unified collaboration combines a variety of communication tools — voice, video, e-mail, Web conference, presence, IM, etc. — into a seamless user experience through a single user interface. It allows all users to participate in collaboration using the tool of choice and allows users to quickly jump from one form of communication to another. This helps people get things done faster. For example, need to talk about an e-mail you just received? You should be able to see if that person is available and, with one click of the mouse, jump from an e-mail conversation to talking to them on the phone. This is what I mean when I say that e-mail is changing — it has to fit into an overall collaboration strategy.

So how do companies move from e-mail to unified collaboration?

This is pretty cutting-edge stuff so there are lots of challenges. The complexity and scalability requirements of UC deployments necessitate all but the largest companies to outsource UC. Most enterprises need to collaborate with others outside their own corporate walls, so it really makes sense to use the cloud. However, most companies have to make significant changes in their architectures to better align with the architecture of clouds. These include bandwidth, security and accessibility considerations both inside and outside the corporate domain — because you have to consider mobile devices now.

Cloud UC service providers have to meet challenges of their own. The biggest considerations for a great user experience when using cloud-based UC vendors are managed throughput (bandwidth to and from the cloud) and quality of service (QOS). Many cloud vendors were designed with data processing in mind and not to be ‘real time’ like traditional e-mail providers. Others, like Telovations, had the advantage of building out their architecture with real-time collaboration as the specific end goal. The importance of selecting an outsourcing cloud vendor whose network is designed with the throughput for real-time applications cannot be overstated. The benefits are worth it though as your organization will realize an exponential leap in productivity by using the right tool for communication.

MARK SWANSON is the CEO of Telovations, Inc. Reach him at mswanson@telovations.com.