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The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the unified communications market significantly as video adoption soared and remote work created new demands for collaboration tools. While the pandemic is ongoing, organizations spent 2021 preparing for the future of work and what a post-pandemic office could look like.
UC vendors, in turn, spent the year retooling their collaboration offerings and expanding their portfolios to better support remote work and help organizations navigate the hybrid workplace. The UC and collaboration news that made headlines in 2021 highlighted five trends that foreshadow the future of the market, including hybrid work and virtual reality (VR).
1. Acquisitions address remote communications needs
A mostly remote workforce during the pandemic has created new communications requirements as video replaced in-person meetings and the reliance on collaboration tools grew. Many UC vendors looked to make acquisitions to round out their portfolios and address their customers' needs.
For example, Cisco acquired event platform Socio Labs to add support for virtual and hybrid events, webinars and webcasts in Webex. Microsoft also made a handful of acquisitions to add new capabilities and support for Teams and its 365 suite. In April, Microsoft announced it would buy Nuance Communications for $19.7 billion, which would enable Microsoft to integrate Nuance's speech technology. Microsoft also acquired enterprise content delivery network provider Peer5 in August to support large Teams video conferences on corporate networks.
Other acquisitions also highlighted the UC priorities that will drive vendor roadmaps over the next few years. Many vendors are investing in communications PaaS (CPaaS) and APIs to address their customers' desire to embed communications into business apps and better support mobile communications.
For example, Ericsson announced its plan to buy Vonage, which would give Ericsson CPaaS capabilities to expand its 5G and wireless infrastructure products. Cisco also bought CPaaS provider IMImobile in February to add cloud-based messaging APIs to its contact center products.
But not all acquisitions were consummated. Zoom tried to buy contact center-as-a-service vendor Five9 in order to enter the cloud contact center market and compete against vendors like RingCentral, 8x8 and Cisco. But, following government scrutiny, Five9 shareholders voted in September to nix the deal.
2. The hybrid workplace evolves
As organizations reevaluate workplace environments amid a global pandemic, many have opted for a hybrid option with a mix of in-office and remote work. Collaborating in a hybrid workplace can be challenging when all team members aren't in the same location. But UC vendors have responded by releasing new features to support hybrid collaboration and employee engagement.
Microsoft announced several features and services across its productivity suite to support hybrid work. In Teams, Microsoft added support for cross-company collaboration by introducing Teams Connect, which enables companies to set up channels for external partners to access collaboration features, like chat, video meetings and document sharing. Additional updates to Teams include support for collaborative whiteboarding and meeting framing options so attendees look similar, regardless of whether they're remote or in a meeting room.
Google announced new and upcoming Workspace features to make moving between Workspace apps easier. In May, Google unveiled a smart canvas technology that enables users to use collaboration capabilities across the Workspace suite. For example, a user could use the @ sign to tag a file or meeting. Information related to the tag appears when users hover their cursor over the @ sign, so they won't need to switch between apps to access relevant information.
Some UC vendors also introduced employee experience capabilities to help organizations monitor and understand employee productivity, as well as provide tools for managing workloads. Microsoft introduced its employee experience platform, Viva, which uses analytics from applications like Teams, SharePoint and Yammer to help organizations measure employee productivity and engagement. Viva can also provide wellness insights to help employees schedule breaks and nonmeeting work time.
Cisco also overhauled its People Insights feature to help employees better manage their workload by analyzing activities like how often employees turn their cameras on during meetings or whether they multitask during collaboration sessions.
3. CPaaS thrust into the spotlight
The pandemic drove demand for cloud communications. As an offshoot, many UC vendors turned to CPaaS to open their platforms to enable organizations and developers to embed communications into business processes that support remote work.
Zoom courted app developers by launching a $100 million fund to invest in third-party apps that are built using Zoom development tools. Companies that have received financing from the fund include Mio's team collaboration interoperability app and Allo's whiteboard app. Zoom also opened its platform to enable developers to embed nonbranded video capabilities into their apps.
Microsoft introduced tools to enable developers to build apps on the Teams platform, including media APIs for audio and video, Azure Functions serverless computing and a Microsoft Graph data tool.
Slack also announced it would update its Workflow Builder to enable people to automate processes in Salesforce and other business apps.
4. UC vendors enter the virtual events market
The pandemic not only affected in-person collaboration in the workplace. Event organizers had to cancel conferences and trade shows or pivot to virtual events. As demand for virtual events grew, UC vendors looked to support large events in their platforms. In addition to Cisco's acquisition of Socio Labs, Zoom and Microsoft also made moves in the virtual events market.
Zoom launched its virtual event platform, Zoom Events, in July. The platform provides an all-in-one event experience that includes a virtual lobby, customized ticketing and attendee networking features. Zoom even held its Zoomtopia conference on the platform to demonstrate its capabilities.
Microsoft also launched a webinar feature in Teams to support larger events. The feature, which is included with Microsoft 365 plans, supports webinars with up to 1,000 active attendees or 20,000 view-only attendees. Additional webinar features include registration pages and notification emails.
5. AR and VR become new virtual collaboration frontier
As vendors expand their roadmaps to prepare for the future of UC, they are looking to technology that can replicate the experience of co-workers collaborating in the same room. For some vendors, the answer lies in virtual and augmented reality (AR).
Facebook emphasized its commitment to AR and VR when the company rebranded as Meta in October and highlighted the metaverse -- a persistent, shared virtual space that encompasses physical and virtual components. The company also released a beta of its Horizon Workrooms VR collaboration product in August.
Microsoft and Cisco both announced support for VR and AR in their collaboration platforms. Microsoft introduced Mesh in March, which enables teams to work together as avatars in virtual meeting rooms. Teams will support an integration with Mesh in 2022, where users will be able to join regular meetings with virtual avatars or join virtual conference rooms to replicate an in-office experience.
Cisco plans to bring AR capabilities to Webex with Webex Hologram. Currently in preview, Webex Hologram enables users to wear AR headsets and interact with photorealistic 3D images of meeting attendees, prototypes and other objects.