Synchronous communications like mobile group chat are the latest battleground in the war over unified communications. Startups like GroupMe and Yobongo were part of a flurry of announcements last week on IM, chat and group messaging, but no matter how clever and fun their apps are, and no matter how much these companies hope to be the stars of this year’s SXSW conference, they’re not the real contenders in the race to create a unified communications hub.
Rather, the battle for what company supplies a user’s communications control panel is being fought among technology platform players like Google, Microsoft and Facebook. And a scrappy Skype can’t be ignored either.
The winners — and there’s enough interoperability across communications channels to accommodate multiple hubs — will have an application that its users access constantly. A unified communications hub offers potential customer lock-in through habit and the effort required to switch. 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.
Building the Unified Communications Hub
A successful communications control panel will integrate three key components:
- Universal communications channels: A user should be able to manage both real-time and asynchronous communications, one to one and multi-party, and across different channels: voice, email, text, video. Managing means initiating or receiving the message and moving gracefully between channels with as little effort as possible. For example, 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 auto-sorts by “learning” from a user’s previous email activities. 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. By 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.
I’m less convinced about the need for a universal inbox, at least the way Facebook has implemented it. Yes, there should be one place to find notifications of communications waiting for you; Apple’s visual voice mail is a great example of this. But storing IMs and emails together, and sorting them only by user, seems oversimplified. Users likely appreciate the non-permanence of IMs and the flexibility of folders.
Handicapping the Contenders
So what are the contenders’ key strengths?
- Google can lead with voice, mail and mobile. It should actively build hub features into Android, rather than depend on third-party apps.
- Microsoft’s mail and IM strength is in corporate markets, and it gets along with Facebook on contact sharing. Nokia could be a strong partner in mobile hubs, but that’s going to take some time.
- Facebook can leverage its social graph to create a hub that requires the least effort from users. It is gaining ground in synchronous communications and dominates link- and photo-sharing.
- Skype has moved well beyond its original cheap calling pitch into an early lead in video, and already acts as a control panel for many consumer communications. It’s strengthening its enterprise position with web conferencing partner Citrix.