Friday, April 30, 2010

What's The Future of Communications?

It's been a week since the 140Conf in NYC and the short panel discussion Apr. 21st on the Future of Communications with Bryan Katz of Avaya, Tal Givoly of Amdocs, Jeff Pulver and me.  Fifteen minutes is barely enough time to scratch the surface on what's happening in the world of communications due to the emerging technologies - especially social networks and demographic changes in communication preferences.

I finally got some time to expand on the "what if's" and "wouldn't it be nice" capabilities that I believe are or will be the capabilities we want and will actually have in the "future of communications".  I am not going to try to discuss all the possibilities of the future of communications here in one shot.  I will touch on finding people, presence and controlling your communications.  These were some of the ideas we touched on so briefly last week.

Finding People
At the session we started out with the question of who really owns or controls how we find and contact people; The Directory.  Social networks are clearly changing the game here.  As Jeff asked me (either during the panel or possibly in a side conversation), is Facebook becoming the new white pages and are service providers losing control over this?

Think about it.  Where are you most likely to go to find someone you know, knew, or recently met?  Where are you likely to go to look for a business or individuals with the service, skills, or products you are interested in?  With all the individuals and businesses showing up in the social-sphere it's less and less likely we will rely on the traditional communications providers directories.  It's going to be through the Social Networks and via the major search engines.  You know who they are.  Once you find the person or business you wanted, what you want to save about them is also changing.

Presence
Presence means three major things to me.
1) Location - where I am or where someone or something I seek is, including what time it is there.  This information will impact how/when I want to be reached and how/when I reach out to others.  This is demographic of course but there is no denying that applications like Foursquare are allowing people to more freely share where they are despite the fears people in my demographics have about it.  Who would have thought even 2-3 years ago that people would want to so freely share exactly where they are?
2) Communication modes available - show me what IM, social networks, Skype etc that a person is currently available on. Show me what methods by which that person prefers to be reached at the moment - voice, text, instant message etc.
3) State - in short, show if am I busy and in what way (personal dinner with the family, a meeting, quiet work time, am I alone or not, etc..  Whenever possible detect my state automatically.  It can come from my calendar, location service, or a camera to know if I am there and alone or not.

This more complete view of "state" impacts what I want to see (or hear), how, and when.  Similarly, factoring in the state of who I am looking for will impact which mode of communication I select to reach that person at that time.

Communication Control
I don't know about you but I want better ways of controlling the inflow of communication that comes at me.  The "communication overload".   We need help to avoid distractions.  We often need to (or should) defer and delay incoming communications until a more appropriate time.

We need help in alerting us to what information or communications we really want and need to look at first.  It's far too easy to miss or to take too long to see information such as tweets on a subject I am following.  It's also easy to miss the urgency of attempts to reach me via social network messages, voice mails, emails, missed phone or  IM's - personal or professional.

What The Future May Hold
1) Finding People and "Contacts" - since we are looking for people in different ways the concept of what a "contact" is has to change with it.  I want to save the multiple IDs I have for them - personal, professional, social networks etc.  I want to save additional information about why I know them or the business they are in.  I want to be able to search my own contacts repository by far more than just name. Doesn't this become your own consolidated Directory?

I don't want separate lists for personal and "work" or for each "network" I use.  I don't want separate lists on each device I communicate with.  A single list is driven by what I refer to as the blurring of our personal and professional lives and communications.  We will have the option to converge it all if we want to.  Who else besides ourselves that can "see" this list, or where it is stored, will be of prime concern to the personal and professional user.
2) Choosing A Communication Method - When I want to reach a person that I know, and is already in my "contacts" list, I want to see much more about their "presence".   Show me which networks they are logged into at the time, their presence "state", how THEY prefer to be reached and more.
3) Location Services - Knowing where someone is will also be more prevalent - as long as it's by  user choice.  Knowing where a person is gives us alternate ways to reach someone - like calling the hotel or business you know your contact is at because their cell phone is off or not being answered.  How about re-routing a workers call to the desk,  phone etc they are nearest at the time?
4) A Personal Communication Agent - a rich view of presence, especially "state", will feed into a user rules-based personal agent.  An agent that will select if or how to let a call, IM, text, through initially as well as decide after the fact if an "alert" should be popped on my device.  Information contained in emails, voice mails, tweets, IMs etc will be post-processed by source and keywords.  The personal agent and my presence state determine if and when to alert me to key information I want to see.

Unified Communications For Personal And Enterprise Use
All the above is a just a piece of what Unified Communications needs to be.  It's more to me than common "access" to email, vmail, calling and mixing modes.  The personal agent aspect needs to get stronger and stronger.  A good personal agent needs to be fueled by richer and more automated presence.

Unified Communications isn't just for the Enterprise.  Personal communications (home or mobile) and choices are just as complex as professional.  Are we really able to separate professional and personal anymore?  Service providers offering communications to the home and/or mobile user need to address Unified Communications services just as much as Enterprise vendors do.  Any Unified Communications system will have to at least optionally allow the convergence of  the personal and enterprise lives of it's users.  Of course Enterprises have to come to grips with that and the needs of their employees and support it.  For example, social network use "at work" is still a debated subject.

Putting It All In Real Terms - what can the above allow me to do?  A few examples of what is emerging and what will be.
1) I want to get a hold of Jeff Pulver either for personal or professional reasons.  I look him up in my contacts  from my desk device at work, or my smartphone.  I see through location services or from his last few Facebook or Twitter updates, that he's in Tel Aviv and it's late there.  I also see I have email, Twitter, Facebook and Skype modes to reach him by.  I choose a less real time Facebook message method to reach him.

2) I'm out to dinner with a client.  From my calendar entry, my presence state is automatically set where it is known that I'm not alone as well as busy.  To me it's still rude to take a call or text in the physical presence of others you should be paying full attention to.  As a normal rule my "personal agent" will automatically and silently ignore calls (including silencing any rings) and Social Network based (or any) texts.  I prefer no distractions in this setting.

During the dinner my golf buddy calls.  The call is silently routed to voice mail.  End of story.  Then my boss calls, is prompted on the urgency of the call and he says yes.  The call goes to voice mail, and due to the source being boss, and urgent tag, I receive a pop up alert at my phone.  Last, my wife calls because a relative just went into the hospital with a critical illness.  Initially the call is silently sent to the agent and based on her answering urgent, the call goes through.  Alternatively, if my cell phone were off, through location services my wife can see where I am, since I allow her to, and dial the restaurant I am in.

Some of the capability above exists today.  The rest is coming - or at least it should be!  You may say you don't want or need such advanced presence, location services or a personal communication agent.  Just remember the last time you said 'who'd ever want to do that?'.
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