For years now IT developments have tended to follow a fairly predictable pattern, driven mainly by the needs of business customers. Take email, for example, which started life purely as a business tool before slowly making its way out of the corporate datacentre to the mass consumer market. It wasn't an easy ride, with few concessions made along the way, other than to equip home users with, at first, a cut-down version of the corporate Outlook client then, ultimately, Web-based email, albeit still with an Outlook-derived interface.
And it's not just email, other applications, such as instant messaging and IP telephony, have followed much the same route, from datacentre to SME and ultimately the front room.
In the last couple of years, however, this business-driven model seems to be running out of steam. Indeed, in some areas the process has been all but reversed, with consumer- focused technologies increasingly adapted for business use.
Social networking is a real case in point here. Having been a huge hit with the masses, companies are now scrambling to communicate with customers and to market their products via the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Something that simply wouldn't have been fathomed a couple of years ago.
Widely seen as the upcoming enabler of mass-communication, such services are also where a lot of the developments are appearing first. As witness the recent integration of Skype-based video calling into Facebook, for example, and the Google+ announcement with its much talked about circles designed to make it easier to organise and share content with others.
Then there's the Skype acquisition, expected to set Microsoft back a cool $8.5 million once approved. Given that Microsoft has probably spent that much, if not more, already, developing its flagship unified communications platform - Lync - some might wonder why it's bothering.
Others will see it as sign of an underlying sea change in the way technology is being developed and popularised, from a business -led model to one where the consumer is king.
Not so simple
But is that really what's happening here? Moreover, if you take the concept to its logical conclusion, are businesses ever likely to base their communications strategies on social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter?
Of course they're not.
The technologies behind social networking services may be of equal use to business users and consumers alike, but the way in which they're implemented and deployed needs to be different. Forcing Outlook down consumer email throats was never going to work and, by the same token, business users don't want Facebook friends.
Businesses don't have friends, they have customers. Business users want contacts rather than friends and they want to use the interfaces they already know, such as Outlook or their Salesforce.com CRM client, rather than have to make do and mend with what kids use to gossip online.
The business difference
It's not a difficult concept to grasp and the message does appear to be getting through, at least in some quarters.
Google, for example, has announced a business implementation of its Google+ service even before the consumer product is fully fledged. More than that it is actively dissuading companies from signing up before the business version is available, even deleting business profiles if created.
That Google wants to get businesses to use its social networking service is clear and it certainly makes sense given the way in which it extended its mass market Gmail and Google Docs products out to businesses in the form of Google Apps. At the same time, however, it definitely recognises the need for differentiation. As Google+ project manager Christian Oestlian admitted in a recent blog posting, where he wrote, "The [Google+] platform at the moment is not built for the business use case... Doing it right is worth the wait."
Microsoft also seems to be "getting it", with plans to embrace Skype within its Lync Server solution rather than simply re-badge it as a separate business tool as originally rumoured. An approach Steve Ballmer summed up quite neatly at Microsoft's recent worldwide partner conference.
"One of the great motivations in acquiring Skype," he said, " is to enable the enterprise to have all of the control it wants of communication and collaboration through Active Directory and Lync, and yet be able to connect people within enterprises to consumers, businesses, and trading partners around the world."
And, not or
Elsewhere other developers are looking to integrate social networking services into line of business applications and user interfaces. The bottom line, however, is that social networking is a long way off being at the heart of the corporate way of working if, indeed, it ever makes it that far. Neither should it be viewed as an alternative to conventional unified communications solutions, like those from companies such as Cisco, Avaya and Microsoft.
Yes, social networking has its place and it's refreshing to see technologies coming from the mass market into business rather than the other way around. But it's not a case of "either or". Social networking tools need to be integrated and used beneath the UC umbrella, after all that's what "unified communication" is all about.
This article is written by Alan Stevens and sponsored by Avaya. The opinions reflected in this piece are solely those of Alan Stevens and may not reflect those of Avaya management