In this retrospective article, Hassan Malik takes us back to the time of paper memos and faxes to today’s office with unified communications and collaboration solutions. From email to instant messaging and video conferencing, over the past 25 years, business communications have become faster, more instantaneous, cheaper, and richer.
Do you remember sending a memo around the office in an envelope sealed with a string, booking a long distance call with a co-worker, or catching up on the latest news or TV programme around the office water cooler? If all that seems a distant memory, or you don’t know what I’m going on about, I don’t blame you. These days, there are so many options to instantly communicate in an office, that it’s hard to imagine (or remember) what it used to be like just 25 years ago. Business communications have become much more varied, collaborative, and instantaneous since then.
Twenty-five years ago, the choice of office communication methods was simple: phone, fax, and post. Despite email and networking technologies existing before the 90s, adoption within an office was slow at first. Businesses adoption of new communications tools often happens slower than expected: investments must be prioritized against other needs for finance, IT teams have finite bandwidth, and there’s no accounting for user preferences.
In the 90s, paper dominated our office lives. Some offices had busy mailrooms, in others staff collected their mail from a personal “pigeon hole”. There were memos, inter-office mail, and all kinds of delivery services. The most common method to share important documents between offices quickly was by fax (short for “facsimile”), which used the telephone network to send documents. The alternatives were post (a.k.a. “snail mail”) or expensive courier, e.g. Fed-Ex. In addition to speed, a signed document sent by fax was treated as a legitimate copy of the original. It took a long time for businesses to trust and accept email in the same way.
In the early 90s, workplace IT was fragmented: the experience was poor and clunky with competing platforms such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange that didn’t play nicely together. It wasn’t until the mid-to-late 90s, that common network protocols and standards enabled the business community to truly enter the digital age. The price of computing hardware dropped, and PCs and Microsoft applications, notably Outlook (launched in 1997 with Office 97), dominated the consumer and enterprise market. Email became ubiquitous – finally, the business community had an effective alternative to phone and fax.
During the early 90s, everyone had a desk phone linked to the office’s enterprise telephone switching system - the PBX (Private Branch Exchange). Back then, it was likely a simple voice-based telephony service, even though more advanced features such as conferencing existed at that time. Video conferencing was also possible, but costly, and also lacked good quality. Conference calls were often made in meeting rooms with special equipment, adding more cost and limiting flexibility.
In 1995, Vocaltec launched the first VoIP (Voice-over-Internet-Protocol) application[i]. This kick-started the race to reduce the cost of enterprise communication by using the internet. In 1997, the first Internet Protocol (IP) PBX[ii] was introduced. This, to me, was the point at which the use of our much-loved Unified Communications (UC) was enabled.
In the early 00s, with the introduction of second-generation VoIP applications, such as Skype (launched in 2003), IP telephony and UC started gaining traction. A number of start-ups launched and were later acquired by the likes of Cisco, Microsoft, and Nortel. PBX vendors such as Avaya saw an opportunity in UC but one which cannibalised their traditional PBX product revenues. By 2006/07, Microsoft and IBM had promising UC solutions that could provide the necessary communication applications, such as Instant Messaging (IM), with a call control capability linked to an enterprise’s PBX. These UC solutions gathered significant momentum, driving three-digit growth figures in 2008-09[iii].
These events marked the start of the end for the traditional PBX. However, although the sale of new PBXs declined, enterprises were not ready to switch off their existing PBXs until these assets had fully depreciated, putting a downward pressure on UC adoption. This was probably for the best as early in the 2010s, Unified Communication and Collaboration (UC&C) tools faced the same challenges as email did in early days – lack of ubiquity. Solutions offered by UC&C vendors were disjointed and poorly patched together, offering clunky performance and poor experience. Like email before it, businesses on a single vendor platform could not talk to businesses using a UC&C solution by a different vendor.
In the race to develop the most comprehensive UC solution, Cisco and Microsoft took the lead. Cisco had its telephony heritage as its strength whereas Microsoft capitalised on its strong software integration into the enterprise ecosystem. Cost and productivity benefits demonstrated by these UC&C solutions meant that businesses have gone through another change in communication mechanisms.
In more recent years we have seen how collaboration platforms such as Microsoft SharePoint (launched in 2011), Google Drive (2012) and more recently Slack (2013), are changing how we store and share knowledge. Instead of sharing documents using network drives or sending large email attachments, the trend to store material on a collaboration platform is becoming the norm. There have been further improvements with web-based conferencing solutions. Notably, since Microsoft’s purchase of Skype in 2011, Microsoft has incorporated its well-known video conferencing features into its IM platform. With these UC&C solutions, telephony, email, conferencing, instant messaging, storage, and multi-user document editing have all come together in one platform. However, business communications didn’t just change in the office building. Over this same period, the workplace became mobile.
Mobilizing the Workforce
In 1999, a little known Canadian start-up called RIM launched a game changing product called the Blackberry 850[iv]. This simple device offered a black and white screen with no more than 8 lines of text display. Connected to the corporate network, it offered essential capabilities such as sending and receiving messages, emails, calendar, and address book integration with a QWERTY keyboard. In 2003, Blackberry launched the 7210 with a colour display and the capability to not just send and receive email on the go, but also the ability to open PDF, PowerPoint and Excel documents, making itself indispensable within the business environment.
Blackberry not only made access to email better, but also changed our attitudes towards business communications and staying connected. Senior executives started carrying work in their pockets while on holiday and suddenly there was an expectation that response to an email will be almost immediate.
Then Apple launched the first iPhone in 2007 and propelled smartphones into the mainstream. Now, everyone was getting a smartphone whether or a company provided them or not. Staff could connect to the company’s enterprise networks with WiFi or mobile data. Soon it was not only smartphones, but also tablets and other devices. Collectively, we started calling this trend Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD). At first, corporate IT departments resisted the BYOD trend with fears of security breaches and mishandling of corporate data but those precautions didn’t stop employees from using their devices. Once the corporate directory was on a personal device, employees had the ability to use consumer applications, such as WhatsApp, to stay connected with their co-workers, and even customers. Now that every employee had a smartphone, a company’s workforce was connected everywhere and anywhere – work and personal lives became more interwoven.
Building Social Business Networks
Like consumer devices, social media is also enmeshed in today’s business communications – starting with the business networking tool LinkedIn (launched in 2003), and including social networks, news networks, and image sharing applications such as Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), and Instagram (2010). More recently, Slack, a cloud-based collaboration tool has gained traction with businesses and consumers alike. Not only are these new platforms used to communicate with co-workers outside the office but also to reach out to customers, partner organizations, and industry associations, as an effective way of sharing and exchanging knowledge. So it was no surprise that Facebook showed its commitment to enterprise, with the launch of its enterprise collaboration tool, Workplace, in late 2016. With social media, business communications has moved beyond office walls and out into the wider world.
Social media hasn’t eliminated the need for phone, email, and post for sharing official news and documentation, but it has enhanced what we do in the office. Just today, I have sent several emails, used Skype conferencing four times, caught up with my friends on WhatsApp, and collaborated with my colleagues via Slack whilst working on documents on SharePoint. Looking back at the past two decades and considering that we started with paper memos and faxes, we’ve come a long way. How will advancements in video, virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D printing, and robotics further enhance how we communicate in the office? I’m excited to see what’s next. <>
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[iv] ZDNet.com: “A history of Blackberry in Nine Iconic Handsets and (One Meh Tablet)”. January 2013.