I can still pull out of my memory an image of Uhura interacting with her computer. Her gizmo on the starship Enterprise could walk, talk, chew gum and connect Captain Kirk with Koloth, a Klingon warlord for pre-battle, virtual tête-à-tête. No keyboard and no fiddling with teeny-weeny buttons.
Today, many companies argue that their lineup of hardware and software delivers what Madison Ave types call unified communications. Cisco, once a manufacturer of upscale gear for a data center, has bet a pile of silver dollars on unified communications. The Cisco product line includes hardware plus video conferencing, VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), search and communications management software. No Lone Ranger, Cisco joins Microsoft, Alcatel-Lucent, Hewlett Packard, IBM and a wedge of startups in the unified communications market.
Unified communications is a fuzzy concept. I think of my device and a network connection that allows one-to-one, one-to-many, and video-application-voice conferencing and collaboration by talking or looking at information.
No blue-chip MBA is required to figure out that attending a face-to-face meeting is expensive, easily costing as much as $1,000 or more for each person each day. Even though airfares are rising, the hassle of business travel is one of the defining factors when it comes to choosing not to travel. As Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (Knopf, 2008) explains, hopping in an automobile to drive 10 miles to a meeting can ruin even an optimist’s morning. Make that drive in London, Paris or Washington, D.C., and you may miss your meeting.
Softphone?Omnivorous Google wants a chunk of the unified communications market. Like many things Google, the Mountain View leviathan does not make it easy to get a handle on exactly what is available. Figuring out Google’s enterprise products and services requires commitment, significant effort and an assistant like Uhura’s coworker, Spock.
A December 2009 TechCrunch article had the headline: “Voice May Join Google’s Enterprise Line Up.” Rumors surfaced in Nadeem Unuth’s Voice over IP Blog that Google may roll out a Google “softphone.” Unuth wrote: “A softphone is so important, especially for Google Voice, since it allows people to use the Google Voice number more flexibly. You could, for example, receive calls free through your Google Voice number over your computer, and this would be handy while travelling abroad.”
What happens if Google integrates its various communication technologies in one enterprise offering? Google might vault itself beyond unified communications and have a claim to what I call transformational communications.
Transformational communications suggest new ways of working, creating, interacting and finding information. Google—despite its erratic and somewhat confusing enterprise strategy—has a more homogeneous platform than many of its competitors. Furthermore, Google has a platform in place and the resources to disrupt almost any market.
My research indicates that Google has put significant effort in making it relatively easy for a Google engineering team to hook different Google functions together. In my 2005 The Google Legacy (Infonortics), I pointed out that the company followed a “Lego blocks” approach to its services. The idea was that code could be reused as well as complete Google subsystems, such as search, analytics and geospatial. The approach has become one of the defining characteristics of Google’s proliferation of products and the speed with which the company can deploy a service like Buzz or Wave and then introduce new features and functions without lengthy development and engineering cycles. The Lego blocks approach makes Google a fast-moving target. Competitors and analysts have to work harder to figure out what Google is doing or may do.
Electronic mail, calendar functions and collaboration are found in Google’s transformational communications (Lego blocks) kit. What happens when we include in Google’s enterprise communications product lineup the Buzz, Wave and VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), Chrome, the Android mobile capabilities, search, archiving, security and the various Google application programming interfaces (APIs)? If a Google engineering team picks three of those services to glue together, there are six possible combinations of those Google products. Assume the engineering team ups the number of services to glue together, and there are 720 possible combinations. A traditional engineering approach yields products that are defined by specifications, not combinatorial fiddling around.
The idea is bold and simple. Instead of offering services, Google makes it possible to develop applications in which multiple Google services interact with one another and with third-party solutions. The result is a collaboration environment that leapfrogs the older Lotus Notes and Microsoft SharePoint approaches. Those require on-premises systems, complicated setup and a traditional team of system administrators and programmers. Google relies on the cloud, uses mashup methods and shifts the heavy lifting to the Google platform.
Google does not make it easy to see the company’s crazy quilt of technologies, services, products and software as a single, cohesive product. The approach is likely to yield breakthrough products. Gmail is an example of a disruptive service that could become a key component in Google’s push to transformational communications. [Editor's note: Google announced in August that people can make phone calls through their Gmail accounts.]
Corporate and government users
Google has been successful in getting companies, governmental entities and non-profits to use Gmail and services available within the Gmail interface. Among the believers are universities (the University of Phoenix), cities (Seattle and Los Angeles) and commercial organizations (Canadian Broadcast Corporation and Sony Ericsson). Each organization makes a commitment to use Google enterprise cloud services. About one year ago, Google stripped the “beta” label from Gmail.