Industry Insights: VoIP and Collaboration in 2017

The coming year looks to be an important one across quite a few technology segments, especially business analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), and security. But another segment that might dramatically change the way you work and conduct business is Voice-over-IP (VoIP) and its continuous merging with cutting-edge online collaboration technologies. To get a better handle on where internet-based unified communications (UC) is going, we sat down for an in-depth conversation with Curtis Peterson, Senior Vice President of Cloud Operations at top VoIP and UC provider RingCentral.

PCMag: Thanks for agreeing to talk with us. Business VoIP and UC-as-a-Service (UCaaS) looks like it's set for some major changes in the coming year. It seems like that started when Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) scenarios became popular. How has the BYOD revolution impacted how your customers are purchasing VoIP services?

Curtis Peterson (CP): BYOD has greatly impacted how IT and businesses are evaluating their communications platforms. With smartphones nearly ubiquitous, the assumption is that any and all applications run on smartphones first. We tend to compartmentalize this in our heads because we treat smartphones as two devices: a phone and a tiny computer with a touchscreen. End users, especially those younger than 35 years old, don't think this way. It's one device. Viber, FaceTime, WeChat, WhatsApp, and the likes have already broken this wall down. In 2007, RingCentral took a mobile-first design and solution approach to our UCaaS services. Not only are our applications full-featured with multi-modal communications and collaboration capabilities, but we also have built a complete, 100-percent administrative touch interface for managing the entire system.

Employees in the workplace show up with their personal devices and use the apps provided by their employers. The BYOD model has forced businesses to transition from a closed system approach to an open system policy, which is the perfect conduit for cloud-based services as it abstracts the service from closed-loop, on-premises systems but still provides the visibility, manageability, flexibility, and security that proprietary and closed systems offer.

PCMag: Are handsets still part and parcel of every business installation, or is the number of software-only deployments on the rise?

CP: I find it ironic that enterprises everywhere are still investing inordinate amounts of their IT budgets in desktop phone technology and maintenance. At RingCentral, more than 75 percent of our employees prefer to use their smartphones or a softphone for communications, and I'm sure we're not an aberration among our peers in the industry. With the exponential shift to soft clients, the features of UCaaS are leaving the desktop phone behind. We have several large customers and resellers that only assign a Chromebook to their users, and it becomes their universal computer for all of their applications and their communications platform. We think this approach will continue to be more commonplace.

PCMag: Will there be a day when handsets disappear entirely from the typical business user's desk?

CP: Believe it or not, handsets are a long way from complete extinction. They are priceless for many voice communication scenarios; for example, in conference rooms, multi-use site call centers, reception areas, or for salespeople who are on the phone all day. The ultimate demise of the handset will be due to the limitations of the user interface as we move further away from simple telephone numbers and closer to multi-modal options such as text, collaboration, and video. At the end of the day, the user interface on handsets will not be able to meet those needs of the workplace.

PCMag: It's been predicted that 2017 will be the year we'll see chatbots deployed in customer service operations. Do you agree with that assessment and what can customers expect from chatbot technology?

CP: A developer in Sweden, Peder Fjallstrom, whose app company just created a bot agency, says it best: "Everyone wants a bot. No one knows why." With that said, I predict that, by the end of 2017, 25 percent of a consumer's sales or support interactions will be with a chatbot.

The initial advantages for the user will be to analyze conversations to determine where to route their calls, whether it be a live agent or a self-help portal. Chatbots can do the heavy lifting of resolving logistical or administrative inquiries. Lastly, users will be able to procure content from knowledge bases and won't need to spend cycles of time searching the website.

Initial limitations will be similar to those we had when Interactive Voice Response (IVR) was first introduced. For example, if you did not say every number on a credit card correctly or push the right number for the exact option, the IVR transferred you to a person, routed you back to the main menu, or worst of all, terminated the call. That's going to be our start in the bot world as well: not seemingly bright or logical interactions. It's still early for chatbots, but hey, if they can keep me from having to repeat my customer account number, home address, and last four digits of my SSN every time I'm transferred around, I'll be a happy and loyal customer.

PCMag: Security is an even bigger concern in 2017 than it's been in the last few years. How will we see VoIP and UCaaS providers respond to customers' demand for heightened security in the coming year?

CP: I see this as one of the most significant challenges facing every organization across all industries in 2017 and beyond. The idea that we are well into multi-year, state-sponsored cyber warfare is a widely held point of view by executives across almost all businesses. I believe we'll see continued investment, focus, and innovation with security from the UCaaS provider community and cloud services. While no X-as-a-Service provider can claim their network is 100 percent secure, at least not without being attacked the next day by half the world's hackers, I think 2017 will see us continuing to raise the bar higher for security.

For example, at RingCentral, we're expanding our use of analytics and security monitoring, and integrating artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning into our data sources to more quickly identify security threats. We will continue to work with the internet community and our competitors to strengthen our collective ability to withstand attacks such as the massive DNS-based Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attack late last year that targeted East Coast cloud and network providers. I believe UCaaS and cloud providers can achieve economies of scale in security that private enterprises simply cannot do, while delivering all the other functions to their businesses that they are required to do.

PCMag: What can customers do right now to protect their communications more effectively when those communications are conducted in the cloud?

CP: So, for now, selecting a trusted cloud provider is the right first step to increase the level of security of your communications. Additionally, check credentials of the UCaaS company, especially their frequency of testing and scans, and what basic levels of auditing they have in place. But the most important thing I believe people can do today is to frequently change and use strong passwords for all applications, including UCaaS applications. This still remains the number one vector of attack that we see across the broader technology space for applications as well as within the UCaaS world. UCaaS providers like us integrate our solution with SSO providers to make it simple for enterprises to manage complex applications and passwords, while still enforcing rotation of non-repeating passwords.

PCMag: Aside from what we've discussed thus far, what do you see as the top three trends for UCaaS and cloud VoIP services in 2017?

CP: Millennials continue to be the largest growing segment of the workforce, creating a workplace where we sit at the crossroads of an era, with four generations working alongside each other. This is driving interest in UCaaS and other multi-modal communications applications, which are increasingly a very attractive solution to bridging the intergenerational communication variances.

I also see the continued rise of collaboration apps as a meaningful part of business communications. I expect continued growth and, even better, continued expansion of features and integrations of these systems, ultimately functioning like a human "data bus" of work and communications.

Last, I see more enterprises taking a serious look at cloud-delivered UCaaS services as they have to address the expansion of their global initiatives, overloaded IT departments supporting in-house apps that don't drive revenues for the business, and corporate initiatives of moving apps to the cloud.

PCMag: If there's a customer looking to make the shift from traditional phone PBX to cloud PBX, what are the first few steps you think they should take, even before contacting a vendor?

CP: First, executives and IT should have an agreed upon cloud strategy that addresses short- and long-term goals, and evaluate services and applications that align with their business models. Most importantly, they should secure broad internal consensus on this model.

Secondly, ensure [that] unified communications aligns with your cloud strategy. Now it's time to go shopping. I see too many customers who are at the final phase of their decision process and their shortlist is composed of a UCaaS provider like RingCentral, their previous on-prem hardware vendor, and a next-generation hardware vendor. This indicates to me the decision is about the internal politics of that company's cloud strategy, not about picking the vendor that best meets the needs of their cloud strategy. Define your strategy and then stick to it. Then, create a shortlist of two to three providers that meet your strategy. This ensures you will pick the best vendor for your organization.

PCMag: Last but not least, let's touch on mobile VoIP. We're seeing pundit predictions that mobile VoIP will see significant growth in 2017. Does you agree with that and, if so, what do you think is going to be the catalyst for that growth?

CP: I agree that there will be significant growth in mobile VoIP in 2017, with the catalyst being applications. While I don't see a plethora of new apps flooding the stores, I do see a reduction in total number of apps, and those that remain will have significant increase of functionality and usability. Recently, the carriers and mobile phone builders were disrupted with messaging apps operating "over the top" and around the native messaging systems. Companies like WhatsApp simply pushed native messaging clients to the side and delivered a superior product, capturing 100s of millions of dollars of messaging revenue from the mobile operators.

We see this trend continuing and moving to more complex and more multi-modal apps—like RingCentral's client. Combined with recent iOS releases, like the Apple CallKit, the next frontier will be normalization of the native dialer and messaging as one of many choices that perform equally on the mobile client.

Companies like RingCentral have the ability to work closely with wireless carriers and provide native dialer integration, or we can simply bypass the carrier and go "over the top" with little friction to the user. On top of all this, mobile conferencing and collaboration is on the rise, and platforms like Facebook are integrating voice and video over IP into their platforms; the momentum is certainly there.

The surge in popularity is going to come from several areas, but at the top, I'd put general user awareness. As more consumer based companies such as WhatsApp, Viber, and Facebook integrate VoIP into their apps, the acceptance of using a business-based communications app will go more mainstream. But the other technology that's truly levelling the playing field in this area is Apple's CallKit developer framework. The importance of this tool set cannot be overstated.

Curtis Peterson is Senior Vice President, Cloud Operations at RingCentral where he is responsible for global strategic planning and growth of the cloud communications platform for RingCentral's UCaaS product offerings. Since 2002, he has developed, launched, and operated cloud business communications solutions for companies ranging from startups to Fortune 500 firms. Prior to joining RingCentral, Peterson was Director of Information Services at NuVox (acquired by Windstream), and then VP of Operations Center at Windstream.

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