Will Social Show Its Face In Unified Communications?

At Enterprise Connect, the buzz about social media is oddly muffled. Then again, has anyone really proven social and unified communications belong together?
Microsoft's keynote presentation from Kirk Koenigsbauer, corporate VP for Office, casually referred to the product line that includes SharePoint and Lync as delivering a great social experience. Microsoft has recently promised greater investment in enterprise social software, where SharePoint in particular is often characterized as incomplete. On the other hand, a more complete Microsoft social collaboration experience, combined with Lync for realtime collaboration, could potentially finish the job Cisco set out to do with Quad. We'll see.

People I've spoken with at pure-play enterprise social networking firms like Jive Software and Yammer tend to think it's enough to display a profile page with a phone number, without necessarily allowing you to place a call.

Where social is starting to show its face in UC is by letting us see people's faces. Faces are typically shown in an instant messaging context--during the exchange of messages, if not in the contacts list. I'm half convinced that half the magic of social software is letting us see people's faces, next to their names, in the context of a conversation. That's a godsend for people like me who have trouble remembering names.

With the Avaya Flare experience, which includes the Flare desktop device, as well as Flare for Windows and Flare for iPad, you short through a social directory that includes people's faces and deal selected contact cards into a conference call or videoconference.

Alcatel-Lucent is doing something similar with its OpenTouch Conversation software, to be delivered first on the iPad with versions for other devices and for PCs to follow. Alcatel-Lucent announced the iPad product and demonstrated it at Enterprise Connect, with the product's release targeted for this summer. In the OpenTouch version, your view of contacts starts by showing you the history of your recent conversations, as well as a projection into the future based on the people you have appointments with on your calendar. You also get a buddy list across the bottom of the screen. As with Avaya's Flare, you select the people you want to connect with by dragging their contact cards onto an onscreen "stage." Both products allow you to connect your social networks to your contact list, so that you get a photo and some profile information for that person even if it's not available in your corporate directory.

"Yes, it's a little like Flare except clearer and less clunky," Alcatel-Lucent's Craig Walker, worldwide director of solution management, told me. So far, Avaya has made only voice calls and conferencing available on Flare for iPad, delivering video only on its tethered tablet-like Flare device for executive desktops.

I don't want to get any deeper into a feature comparison--my point is only that putting faces next to names is being recognized as an increasingly important part of unified communications. Of course, video calling means always getting to see faces, but with social you can see them even before you place the call.

One of the best indications I had of the face phenomenon was a conversation with Sococo, a startup I like to think of as the bobblehead collaboration company. While hardly a household name, Sococo has proven it's possible to create a sense of connection and intimacy even with a fairly abstract representation of remote participants. Each person is represented onscreen as a colored ball with just a bit of character. Essentially animated status icons, these avatars signal their availability for a call, videoconference, or impromptu chat visually--for example, by whether or not the avatar is wearing a headset or whether the door to its virtual office is open or closed. Sococo team spaces can also include screensharing and other modes of collaboration.

Sococo's style of virtual collaboration contrasts with more literal, Second Life-style 3-D collaboration spaces, exemplified by products like Avaya's web.alive (soon to be renamed AvayaLive Engage). However, Sococo president Chris Wheeler thinks incorporating people's real faces might not be such a bad idea, after all.

"We are working on a way to overlay faces on top of the avatars. We haven't done that yet, but it's one of the most common requests," Wheeler said. Possibly, the faces could be included in a pop-up contact card, or be displayed when the user hovered his mouse over an icon. The abstract avatars work as "a constant reminder of who is there, physically or virtually," and as a way of organizing who is or is not available and who is included in which meetings, he said. "At the same time there is no substitute for the face."

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard and

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