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In 2019, unified communications vendors forged partnerships to integrate their products and plug holes in their portfolios.
Avaya and RingCentral came together to deliver cloud telephony to the midmarket, while Microsoft and Cisco reached a truce in the hopes of making it easier for users to join meetings across platforms.
Slack and Zoom inked a deal to align roadmaps, while Zoom and RingCentral agreed to keep bundling their calling and video services for at least another couple of years.
These cloud UC partnerships could bring significant new features to users and help the vendors involved stand out from the competition. But questions remain about exactly how each of them will play out in 2020 and beyond.
The new product, Avaya Cloud Office by RingCentral, is supposed to launch in the first quarter of 2020. Avaya's resellers will attempt to sell it to the small and midsize businesses that currently use Avaya IP Office.
The deal followed reports that Avaya was in advanced talks with private equity firms interested in buying the company. Ultimately, the vendor opted to partner with a competitor that had been stealing its on-premises customers for years.
The partnership brings together a leading cloud vendor and an industry stalwart with one of the largest bases of customers in the industry. But many remain skeptical about how much the deal will benefit the two companies.
Analysts have questioned whether it was smart for RingCentral to partner with Avaya when it was already successfully recruiting the vendor's customers.
Meanwhile, Avaya's customers are waiting to find out how different the joint cloud product will be from RingCentral's standard offering. Avaya has said it plans to enhance the product with extra features familiar to on-premises users.
"The big question is, can Avaya really sell cloud? They have not really been successful in the past," said Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst at ZK Research. "Another question is, will Avaya customers embrace this?"
In November, longtime rivals Microsoft and Cisco revealed they were working together to enable better interoperability between their video conferencing room systems.
Businesses currently use third-party gateways to connect room systems. But the setup is unreliable and provides limited functionality in meetings.
In the future, Microsoft and Cisco room kits will load the other party's app in a web browser. That will provide a native meeting experience and eliminate the need for a third-party gateway. The vendors expect to launch the feature in early 2020.
Microsoft is working with Zoom to enable the same kind of interoperability, a sign that the video conferencing industry could soon unite around the new method as a standard.
But cloud UC vendors have been promising to make joining meetings quick and easy for years. Large organizations will likely be taking a "wait and see" approach to the latest attempt to do so, said Dion Hinchcliffe, principal analyst at Constellation Research.
Meanwhile, Microsoft also said it would certify Cisco as a partner providing traditional gateway services for interoperability. Plus, it will let customers use Cisco's session border controllers to support calling in Microsoft Teams.
The cooperation between Microsoft and Cisco is welcome news to the many large organizations that use a mix of technologies from both vendors. For Cisco, the initiative could be crucial in helping convince customers to keep their Webex video gear in place.
"What this shows you is that Microsoft is no longer afraid of Cisco," Hinchcliffe said. "The bottom line is, Cisco wants to stay in the game. We are seeing Microsoft and Zoom winning a lot and having Cisco being pulled out."
In April, Slack and Zoom announced that they would align product roadmaps and develop joint marketing strategies.
The team collaboration vendor and the video conferencing provider have maintained a close association for years. The deal reached in April made that relationship formal, bringing together two upstarts that have disrupted their respective markets.
One aspect of the partnership involves better integrations between the two products. The companies have already made it easier to join Zoom meetings from within Slack. In the future, they are planning to power calling in Slack using Zoom Phone.
But analysts are still waiting to see whether Slack and Zoom will pursue joint sales activities, such as offering a discount for buying both products as a bundle.
A Slack-Zoom bundle could help the vendors compete against larger rivals Microsoft and Cisco. But the package would still be missing a calling service capable of appealing to the largest businesses. Zoom's one-year-old telephony offering, Zoom Phone, does not yet offer everything those customers need, said Raúl Castañón-Martinez, analyst at 451 Research.
"While a combined offering is very compelling, I don't think it poses a significant threat to Cisco or Microsoft," Castañón-Martinez said. "Still, this could set the stage for Zoom and Slack to become disruptive in the near future."
For years, RingCentral has relied on Zoom to provide a video conferencing app to its UC-as-a-service customers. Zoom's technology powers an offering called RingCentral Meetings.
In May, the two companies announced a "multiyear" extension of the partnership. But Zoom's push into the cloud calling market is likely straining that relationship. Zoom has been rapidly building out Zoom Phone, a product that could replace RingCentral's calling service within some organizations.
In launching Zoom Phone in 2018, CEO Eric Yuan suggested the company did not intend to compete with RingCentral. But Zoom was far less shy about pushing the product at its annual user conference in 2019, saying it was time for all customers to adopt it.
At the conference, Yuan told reporters and analysts he expected the relationship with RingCentral to continue. Given the multiyear extension announced in May, that may be true, at least in the near term. But analysts said it would make sense if RingCentral were developing a backup plan for video communications.
"It makes sense that RingCentral might consider its own meeting app and reduce reliance on Zoom," said Irwin Lazar, analyst at Nemertes Research. "That doesn't preclude them from continuing to support and partner with Zoom as well, for at least the time being."