Saturday, May 15, 2010

Redundant, Robust, and UC

Through the events of the past couple of years, we’re again seeing that the two essential elements of a communication strategy are redundancy and robustness.

The conventional meaning of redundancy is having a second phone as well as the deskphone, or a battery backup in case the AC fails.  But what I’m talking about goes beyond that: it’s not just separate duplicate abilities, it’s having communication paths that use different media entirely, maybe following different physical tracks or even different laws of physics. And similarly, while “robust” may mean a phone that you can drop, it doesn’t help much if the phone wire itself has been torn loose in a hurricane; the strategy, not just the device, needs to be robust.

This kind of redundant backup is something that we have in the wild, but often lose when we’re connected by technology. If we’re standing together and I talk to you, we’ve got some options when a thunderstorm strikes.  If you can’t hear me, you can see me and I can signal to you.  And if it’s dark, and you can’t see me either, I can tap you on the shoulder. So what has happened?  The audio failed, so I resorted to video; that didn’t work, so I went to touch.  Three entirely different media, and I was able to connect. Redundancy.

Closed standards destroy "robust" because they also close off options.  Texting, e-mail, videoconferencing, presence, shared workspaces, multiple unsynchronized clients, cloud and local implementations, there’s a mess of them and they keep coming, yet they often don't work together.  And that’s before we add Yammer and Twitter and Tumblr and Flickr and Facebook and LinkedIn and Myspace, Posterous, Qaiku, Ning, Digg, Mixx, Reddit…you see the problem? The proliferation of tools and media that’s supposed to be empowering us?  It’s disabling us.  What should strengthen us instead makes us more frail.

This is why this shaking-out in human communications called Unified Communications or UC, is so essentially linked to open standards.  It’s often presented as the next, uber-cooler, the even higher technology, but I see it as a naturalizing, a humanization, of this flock of new and augmented communication tools.  “Unified” is the important part here.  In the same way that my arm-waving is a natural extension of my shout, UC is all about making this rag-tag zoo tie together so one way of connecting is an effortless, obvious extension of another: I don’t need to look up another phone number, URL, or Skype name.  If one tool or one vendor chooses to use their own proprietary standard and can't talk to others, it's not really Unified at all.  Perhaps we should call those implementations "Fragmented Communications."  FC?

Finding ways of ensuring confident cross-platform connection via open-standards based UC will be one of the big enablers of human communication in our future.