Category: Uncategorized

There’s an App for that…

In the modern App Store culture, where if you have a problem there’s an app for that, consumers

During discussions with customers I hear the phrase, we need to collaborate better, more or some other adjective to describe action. In the “there an app for that” culture, many of the mainstream vendors seem to be following suit. It’s true that many of us use different apps to communicate in personal life, if I think about how I communicate and collaborate in personal life I’ll use text messages, WhatsApp, FaceTime, Skype etc, etc.

Whilst this is not only tolerated but embraced in the consumer culture, it becomes onerous in a business setting. I don’t want to have to think about who has what device or system, or what application I have to use to contact someone, whether internal or external.

Vendors only seem to be exacerbating that issue now. Cisco have long been providing collaboration tools that overlap or conflict and my advice to them was always simplify your portfolio, make it easy for the user. I think Spark has moved some way towards this, at least in name, but Microsoft have now moved into this confusing space. I speak with customers who say, what should I use for collaboration in the Microsoft space now? I have Skype, I have office365 groups, I have Yammer and teams, which do I use when and why.

I thought I’d address that here and try to explain on a basic level my thoughts on the matter from the Microsoft perspective.

Office365 groups

Office 365 Groups are at a basic level, similar to Security groups within Windows Active Directory. The group defines users that can then be applied to resources for access. Let’s take a scenario; you want to setup some of the office 365 tools to provide access to a number of users. In the past you would have had to configure access for users to Exchange, Sharepoint, OneNote etc at an application level. That’s pretty painful, especially when you have a large number of users and groups to manage. Since In the main, people work in teams in the real world whether Virtual or Physical, grouping access to resources in this way makes sense.

In this scenario, I can create a group with all of my colleagues that require access to a resource and now apply this across a number of resources using the same group, makes sense. However, Office 365 groups in themselves do not enable collaboration, they are simply a grouping of people that you can then assign resources and permissions to. These groups can then be reused across the Office 365 suite within your organisation.

Microsoft Teams

Microsoft Teams is a closed team collaboration tool. By this I mean in its current guise only internal users to your organisation who are invited can join. Within Teams you create what is called a channel. A Channel is essentially like a room. Once you have created a channel, you then invite people to the channel. When you invite people, this creates an office365 group along with a group mailbox, calendar, SharePoint site and assigns the group access to those newly created resources. Skype for Business is built into Teams, so you have the full suite of Desktop Sharing, Instant Messaging and voice and video available within the Teams client window. In addition the documents stored within the channel can be edited (or co-edited using Office365 co-authoring) ensuring that the latest document is always displayed within the team

You can also create shortcuts to other resources such as documents and calendars and even have connectors that will pull information down from external sources into the team channel conversation. An example here is twitter. You can configure Twitter to pull information relating to a certain term or #hashtag into the conversation. This is useful if you want to consolidate multiple sources of information into a single searchable (and persistent) conversation.

The limitation of Teams is that you have to be invited into a channel to participate and you would never normally find any information stored within the channel. This allows for a secure, collaborative environment for work teams with a single point of truth. It’s not configurable to allow external persons to participate, for that you would have to create them an office365 account with the correct licensing. I could see Microsoft developing the Teams interface so that it in effect becomes your desktop, so everything takes place through that single pane of glass.

Microsoft Yammer

Yammer differs from teams on the premise that it was created with the purpose of sharing information companywide. Yammer is not a real time collaboration tool. Whilst you can upload and share content, it becomes a snapshot of the point in time to which it was uploaded. If you revise the doc, then you have to upload it again. Yammer will now also use Office365 groups, so you can at least repurpose groups for Yammer saving some time.

Yammer also has the ability to invite people from outside of your business to participate within the conversations that take place, giving you a wider and sometimes richer feed of information. (Or conversely reach a wider audience.)

This crowd sourcing perspective can sometimes be useful to gain insights from a wider group. As the reach is wider though, the speed that information can be delivered is more slowly. Whilst Yammer has the capability to allow Instant Messaging, there is no voice, video or desktop sharing capabilities built in which highlights in non-realtime heritage.

The answer to which one should I use right know is probably all of them. Since both Yammer and Teams utilise Office365 groups, that simplifies things slightly. If you want realtime collaboration which is persistent and has voice, video, desktop sharing, file sharing etc, use the teams product. If you need broadcast capability with external access to a non realtime channel, use Yammer. People in the business will probably use both.

In time I’m sure Microsoft could collapse the two products into one, where you create either a teams channel or a yammer channel and dependent on the channel type created, the channel would inherit the requisite attributes. All of this tied together in a single interface being driven behind the scenes by Office365 groups would be a good place to be, but its not there yet!

One Box to rule them all?

Those that know me, know that I like technology and as such my home is crammed full of tech that I am evaluating or playing with. For a long while now I have migrated my video to NAS or streaming it live from the Internet and I have pretty much every major streaming box available. Up until this evening I had a Roku, an Apple TV3 and an Amazon TV fire. Reason? Well, I have iPads and iPhones as does my wife, and we use AirPlay on the Apple TV to share photos and videos. The Apple TV can also play Netflix. It can’t however access my NAS. The Amazon TV fire can access Netflix, Amazon Prime and with Kodi installed, my NAS as well. The Roku was used to access a video streaming site that I use often as well for which there is no native App on the other platforms, but has a native channel on the Roku. This led to my wife being frustrated over the amount of inputs into the TV and which one was used for what. I must admit, the cabling and box swapping kind of got me a little annoyed too.

What solved my issues (for the most part) was an app called AirPin on the Amazon TV (android App) which allowed AirPlay, including video to be sent across to the Fire TV. In addition, a Video add-on in Kodi allowed me to access the browser based video streaming site as well. This has allowed me to get rid of everything bar the Fire TV. The only downside is that sometimes playing Video over AirPlay to the FireTV causes the audio to go out of sync, which is mildly annoying, but for the amount of time we actually use that feature, I can live with it for now.

One interesting point of note that came out of the multiple device scenario I had was the reinforcement of the Application taking priority over the device situation. What I mean by this is that I believe we are moving into the time where the hardware we use will become less important, the GUI and the application will be King. My kids are 2 and 5, the 5 year old isn’t fazed by the different operating systems on these devices. He is happy to navigate the menus of whatever platform (including a PS3 not earlier mentioned) and find Netflix. Once Netflix loads, because of the GUI design and similarity across platforms, he is able to use whatever underlying OS/platform with no issues whatsoever. The fact is, he doesn’t care about the platform, it’s the content that is important.

This I believe is the way forward and why I believe Apple will at some point struggle to keep hold of market share they enjoy without developing for other platforms. As an example, whilst I am an avid Apple user, I do not use the Apple platforms for storage, music or video. I test and own many devices including android and Windows phone OS, I hate the fact that if I use Apple services I’m either tied to a poor equivalent, or non availability. I use Spotify for music, Netflix and Amazon for Video and Onedrive for storage, even backing my IOS device pictures up there to allow me full access from any device. Whilst Apple makes great software (and hardware) there is no denying for me that the software is the preference for me.

Further to this point, if software that Apple made was available on the PC, then it wouldn’t really matter what the device was. I happily use a surface Pro 3 for work, but always default back to the Mac when creating either graphics, movies or music because I prefer the workflow and feel of the Apple designed apps. There is no denying that the Apple Eco-system works well together, and allows pretty seamless roaming between devices, oh and it’s easy to use. I’m sure also that plenty of people are happy to consume all from the Apple buffet. But at the moment for me I’ll continue to use Apple/Windows/Android devices with media consumption from a multiple platform provider.

Until next time..

BlackBerry not dead….but forgotten?

I received an interesting email in my inbox yesterday with a link to an article named “BlackBerry Results Refute Rumors of its Demise” sponsored by BlackBerry. In essence it was pushing the reasons why BlackBerry as a company is far from dead. Having read the article, some good points were made, a strong installed customer base providing revenues, cost reduction exercises throughout the company, new business still being won, money in the bank, but I just feel that the article smacks of a little desperation from BlackBerry. The article can be read here

I can understand wanting to share some positive news, especially given the negative press that they have had from the failed sale to fairfax and the lower than expected uptake of the BlackBerry 10 devices resulting in a write down of unsold stock; however to me it feels like they are pushing the wrong message. I’d like to hear about what they are doing to improve their offering(s), how they are going to do it and why it makes a difference to me or my business, not a cursory hand wave to try to detract attention from IOS and Android whilst trying to push Microsoft into the corner.

What is worse is some of the arguments used to back up their claims, such as “IT decision makers prefer BlackBerry over Windows phone almost 3 to 1“. Whilst this may be true, actual total sales of smartphones in 2013 shows that Microsoft Windows phones outsold Blackberry ones by almost 2 to 1, albeit this includes consumers as well.

Figure 1. IT Decision Makers preferred mobile OS

Most worrying though for Blackberry should be the reduction in mind share, the graphic they used (figure 1.) to demonstrate their point shows a pretty damning indication of the thoughts of that same IT decision maker community, IT decision makers prefer IOS over Blackberry almost 4 to 1 whilst they prefer Android over Blackberry by more than 4 times. That is the perception BlackBerry have to change to stay relevant.

Figure 2. Total Worldwide Smartphone Sales 2013

The actual Smartphone worldwide sales for 2013 look even more damning (figure 2.), the total share of the market for 2013 was only 1.9% for BlackBerry. What do you read into those figures, especially when they drop 3.1% from 2012? This is the problem with statistics, you can shape them to reflect the message you want to drive, so while useful, statistics do not tell the whole story.

Given that BlackBerry has a good customer install base providing income, is winning new business and has money in the bank may indeed indicate that Blackberry still has a pulse, the question for me is are they simply on life support? BlackBerry has many challenges; reducing the operating costs, focusing attention on its current install base, producing smartphones relevant to their users, chasing after new customers whilst developing and driving innovation of the BlackBerry platform is all required to move the business forward, all of this whilst their competition are playing in the same market, seeing their Market Share increase and innovating as well.

Given the fact that both IOS and Android are on the minds of IT Decision makers, it wouldn’t be hard to suggest that a partnership between a secure mail/app provider with one of the Android smartphone manufacturers or indeed Apple could drive adoption and renewal of the BlackBerry platform down. The only question is whether any of these manufacturers has the appetite to do so, given they are playing mainly in the consumer space and only slowly developing corporate grade security and governance features. Maybe BlackBerry could open its platform to provide the BlackBerry service across heterogeneous Mobile OS’s? The time is right for someone to make a play in this space, that might be BlackBerry, but they can’t afford too many more false dawns, BlackBerry Dead? Not quite yet; forgotten – Maybe.


Gliffy – Not Visio but Good Enough

As I work with both Windows and OSX, I have need of a decent program that can produce and or read Microsoft Visio type documents. I tended to use Visio on the MS platform and Omnigraffle on the OSX one. Although this worked fine for me, sometime the diagrams I need to produce don’t really need all of the features provided by those heavyweight applications. In addition, many other people to whom I send the diagrams don’t have either program and want to be able to edit or update the diagrams I produce.

Enter Gliffy. I must admit, I hadn’t seen or heard of Gliffy before 2 weeks ago, but now it has become a staple in my application arsenal. For those that don’t know, Gliffy is a basic diagram creation tool that runs either in your web browser, or as an application in Chrome. For the vast majority of simple diagrams (and some complex ones!), Gliffy is more than capable. As an example here is a diagram of a flow chart created quite quickly using Gliffy tools.

PoC Flow v2

Using my Skydrive account and a shared folder, this enables collaboration with whomever is required, using all tools in the cloud. It means that I can access and update any diagrams produced using Gliffy without having to have my own PC or MAC with me, or requiring Visio or Omnigraffle. For me that is a massive bonus; how many times have you needed to edit a document, where you don’t have the correct tool or version to hand.

You do have the ability to link into a google drive to host and share your files, but I didn’t test that as I don’t use google drive. Integration into Skydrive would be a bonus, and maybe box and a few other online services.

Gliffy has really simplified my workflow, and if you experience any of the issues I have raised above, then Gliffy might just be good enough for you too. My start place has now moved to Gliffy for diagrams, only dropping back to other programs if there is something needed that Gliffy can’t provide. But thats rare.

Couple of negatives at this time, firstly, if you like all of the stencils provided by suppliers of equipment, you can’t import these into Gliffy other than importing as images, which can be slow and laborious, secondly I’d like to see integration with a larger number of online storage providers, finally I can’t get Gliffy working on my iPad using either Safari or Chrome, that would be really cool. I’m hoping thats in the pipeline, but as it stands, I’ll still use Gliffy as my go to diagram creation tool.


Stick to what you know or Change is Good??


As we move through life, many of us will pick up sayings that we have heard along the way, whether from our parents. friends or otherwise. Sometimes though, these sayings conflict with one another and have the potential to leave someone in a quandary.

For instance, let us take the following two examples: “Stick to what you know” and “Change is good

On the surface of it you have two sayings that could be used to describe your unified communications and collaboration strategy. At first look, it also seems that the two are in conflict with each other. But lets briefly examine the two sayings in context and walk through the thought process of each and see what we can learn from this, and indeed whether the two statements are actually contradictory.

Stick to what you know!

Many people I have spoken to when asked about a strategy to help the business develop and keep pace with the modern world in which we live, simply continue to do things the way they have always done because traditionally it has worked. Nothing wrong with that on the surface of things, why change a tried and tested method. The issue comes about when the market dynamic (both employee and customer) starts to change and puts the business in danger of appealing to a ever decreasing audience. Where in the past business was done face-to-face (as in actually being there), the market has now shifted away from this with people looking at and ordering products online rather than venturing out of the door. Depending on your business, this also means you might not need a physical space that has to be manned, so again providing tools to enable staff to work effectively from wherever makes good business sense; why rent a plush office if staff can work from home or another location.

Obviously this will not work for all companies, however those who not only survived the challenging market conditions have actually applied both sayings in their business, stick to what you know and change is good.

Change is Good!

Certain elements of business need not change, if you provide good customer service, at a great price with a quality product and that works for you, why would you change it? The change comes in how you enable your business to provide the things that you are good at and known for, to the widest audience whilst reducing costs. Sounds like a pipe dream? Unified communications and collaboration technology enable businesses to do just that, leveraging the strengths of a business but enabling technology to drive business outcomes and ultimately increase revenue. As an example, look at businesses such as Amazon and eBay, primarily product sales to a large userbase using unified communications and collaboration technology.

an eBay user can use a number of devices to upload and make available content such as words and pictures in order to achieve sales, add into the fact that you can also transact payments from these devices really highlights the any device, any where, any time world that we have all come to live in. Using these technologies as well as others such as voice and video over the internet to drive that return to face-to-face communication and great customer services helps to drive customer retention and increased sales.

So in effect, stick to what you know – do the things that you have always done well, better; but change is good – you might just need assistance in using some of the newer tools available to build and accelerate your company growth and performance and reach a wider audience and empower employees. Thats where we come in; looking at your business goals and aims, speaking with different part of the business to understand the pain points you experience right now, coupled with understanding where you are going allows us to provide a UC&C assessment service to you, a customised roadmap service helping you to get where you want to be.

The Future of Unified Comms?

ImageRaising a child has been one of the proudest moments of my life, and being a fan of technology and gadgets it was a given that my son would follow in my footsteps. Now my son is not even 3 years old yet, but give him an i-device and he is more than capable of navigating it to find and use what he wants. The thing is, he expects everything to work like an i-device. He touches and swipes on the TV screen and wonders why nothing happens and expects everything with a screen to respond to swipes and touches.

His frustration at the lack of continuity across devices reflects what I see and hear from customers with regard to unified communications and collaboration. I get questions such as “why can’t I perform what should be an easy task on device x that I can do on device y?” or “why do I have to do things differently at work from at home to get the outcome I require?

The consumer world will always be more integrated and support a larger number of devices and features than corporate environments and this causes frustration, especially to the younger workers; this is for many reasons which we will not discuss here, but the way many modern businesses work restricts the adoption, interoperability or functionality of many modern collaborative tools and in turn their employees productivity, but thats a subject for another blog.

What I like about i-devices is their ease of use, my son at 2 years old observed me using these devices and picked up the use of them pretty much instantly. Much of that comes down to the way that the user interface works. The other factor which is not specific to i-devices is that the user experience appeals to the senses to engage the user; I see and then I touch and something happens, sometimes visually, sometimes auditory or sometimes both, pretty much like reality. The virtual environment on the screen responds to your interactions just as you’d expect from the real world.

If we extend that to a wider audience, we get a similar experience with most of the tools that we use today, telephones all work in pretty much the same way, numbers remain the same, dialling is the same, email, text messaging, facebook, twitter etc. All function similarly in that the backend infrastructure can be accessed on many devices, be they tablet, phone or computer to provide mostly the same functionality regardless of the device used.

You could argue that it really doesn’t matter what device you use to create or access resources and information, as today most devices are good enough, and the user experience created by the application user interface is what separates a successful platform from an average one. Forcing people to change the way that they are and the way they work is not conducive to productivity. From my experience, good applications provide the best user interfaces to suit the device that the application is being accessed from. This is where I believe the future of unified communications will be. The device will simply become a tool that allows us to do what it is we want and need to do. The user interface and how it allows the user to access whatever, whenever will be the differentiator moving forward. Personally I can use pretty much any device to access what I need, what bothers me is badly written user interfaces  which prevents me from doing what I need to do or precluding me from accessing something because I don’t have the right device.

The challenge for application developers is to ensure that your user interfaces are usable and intuitive and that the backend protocols are interoperable with other vendors; the challenge for us? Making everything work seemlessly in the background so you don’t have to.

Legacy IP Telephony?

I was having a conversation the other day with one of my colleagues, and we were discussing IP Telephony and its ubiquity around us today and its acceptance into mainstream culture. I remember when this certainly wasn’t the case, with many sceptics arguing against the ability of the network to host this business critical function. Another conversation with one of our senior management team alluded to the fact that we just don’t seem to be doing as much IP Telephony work as we used to. Personally I think this is because IPT in the main just works, its a commodity that many companies offer. I have even set up a linux based IPT solution at home for my wife’s business, running across broadband with two other sites connected via VPN, It works just fine.  IP Telephony is now a very well established technology and barring incremental updates, companies expect that their IP Telephony system will function much as their previous legacy TDM PBX systems did.

These conversations prompted me to think about the question “why are we not selling as much IPT as we used to“. My take on this is as follows, IP Telephony as it has been deployed for a number of years now is really a legacy system too. I’m not saying its anywhere near a dying medium, but telephony and indeed communication both in and out of the workplace is changing dramatically. In much the same way that mobile telephony experienced the smartphone revolution, a combining of abilities and functionality to a handheld device; modern telephony and communication systems are expected to do much more in the modern world of communication and collaboration. Lets face it, IPT is no more likely to be discarded wholesale than the population of mobile phone users discard all mobile phones that are not smartphones; both have valid business applications but the benefits derived from each is very different.

If you take communication on a human level, lets consider the following, if you are talking to someone face to face, you have the visual and vocal stimuli. Its harder to misinterpret something someone says in this type of communication. You can then draw, point, share, and enhance the conversation using any tools that may be at your disposal. This engenders trust, familiarity and good communication between the parties involved. How many times have you either misunderstood or been misunderstood as a result of a phone call or email? This is because certain aspects of the communicative process is missing from these communication mediums.

In addition I’m sure many of you have experienced the pain of telephone tag, where you seem to be constantly leaving voice messages for the person you are trying to get on the phone and vice versa. Then you might follow that up with an email and still not get the response in the timeframe you need. Modern communication and working practices have been blended with the always on, anytime, anyplace mentality, meaning people want to contact and communicate in the same manner.

Its certainly much better to know whether the person you want to speak to is currently on the phone or away their desk before you make that call (presence), its good to have the ability to use IM to communicate instantly and seeing your recipients availability status rather than waiting for email exchanges, to be able to escalate the IM to voice or video and then to share your screen to collaborate on information in a timely manner, in some cases disregarding time and location boundaries. These types of communication bring us closer to the types of interaction we can have on a personal basis, leaving less room for miscommunication and misunderstanding, but also saving time and money in the process.

In addition to the aforementioned changes to working practices, there is another aspect that requires consideration. Regardless of the technology types we use to allow the business to communicate, the technology should not stand in the way of effective communication and should for the most part be transparent. There is also the need to take into account that most times, multiple communication and collaboration technologies exist in different technology streams in the same organisation, and there needs to be an integration of these enabling technologies within the workplace. However, I’ve seen too many times the lines of communication in business break down, leaving issues and bad feelings rather than a coming together of minds to enable solutions. The challenge then is twofold, firstly does your chosen communication platform allow your employees and partners to communicate to really get the best from each other; and how you migrate from a legacy IPT platform to one that can support your business and communication needs?

From a personal perspective, we do well to ask ourselves, do I understand the change in communication requirements that exist right now, have I reached out to my existing customer base to assist them in this journey and how do you transform a legacy IPT environment into the next generation communication platform needed for todays world……..give me a call, tweet or reach me on IM –

Collaborative Technologies

I attended the UC Expo show last week in Olympia, and whilst there were some interesting companies and products, I felt slightly underwhelmed by the occasion. The Show was biased strongly towards end users or companies as opposed to a services provider. One thing that did spark my interest was a number of companies who fill niche markets in order to provide a truly collaborative environment. As an example, there was a company called Altigen who provide an iPhone client for Lync that does voice rather than just IM and LifeSize who provide a Video client for iPad and iPhone.

I understand why for example, Microsoft are not keen to provide full iDevice functionality on Lync, they have a range of Windows mobile devices that compete, I also understand why Cisco would want to question the intentions of Microsofts implementation of Skype, being how it is a closed standard for Video technology. The problem shifts from the vendor to the customer as it effectively reduces the device types the organisation can use or increases the complexity of implementation and support for business applications.

My issue with these niche solutions is that it makes the environment far more complex as each solution requires another server, which in turn must integrate with the existing environment. This is true even with the benefits of virtualisation available to us today. Some may say that Cisco are much further along the integration of voice, video, IM etc with the Jabber suite which sits on Call Manager to enable this functionality. Whilst this may be true, this is usually only relevant if you are building a greenfield site or are undertaking a major upgrade process. Usually Customers have a number of technologies currently working within the organisation, and enabling these technologies to work together collaboratively and seamlessly is a far more desired option than a rip and replace.

For me, the major vendors need to work harder to enable and support open standards that allow the introduction of new technologies and services into the business to leverage existing functionality and enable new functionality to the benefit of the business, only when this happens will the customer really benefit.