The unveiling of Google Buzz--merging Gmail with social networking capabilities--is seen primarily as a challenge for social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. However, Google Buzz is also another component of Google's quiet sneak attack against unified communications (UC) platforms like those offered by Cisco and Microsoft.
There is no defined collection of components required for unified communications. Certain elements like VoIP (voice over IP), e-mail, and instant messaging are core functions found in most UC implementations, but UC is open to interpretation and organizations are welcome to mix and match, and deploy different functions over time to fit their needs.
Google hasn't formally promoted its offerings as competition for other established UC solutions, but when you piece together Google Buzz, Google Voice, Google Apps, Gmail, and other Google offerings, the result is a framework with most, if not all, of the elements you would expect to find in a UC platform, as well as some additional features that add some innovative functionality not typically found in UC.
I asked Stefan Hoogendoorn, Google director for e-Office (an authorized Google partner) for his thoughts on Google as a UC challenger. He noted "When looking at the Google offering for UC it does stick out that Google has all the components to create a competitive unified communications offering."
Actually, not only does Google have all of the core components of UC in place, it is also in a position to integrate features not typically found in other UC solutions. Hoogendoorn clarified "Consider the availability of Google Maps, Picasa, YouTube, Google Video (for Google Apps), and all of the open protocols Google supports and provides. You can bet Google will come up with innovative ways to deliver location-based, multi-platform, and user centric UC."
Hoogendoorn added "Google is also working on multipoint video conferencing, [instant messaging] is being better integrated with Google Apps products, Google already has multipoint voice conferencing, presentation sharing etc."
The main thing in Google's way when it comes to delivering unified communications on an international or global scale is the lack of voice coverage. "VoIP service has been established in the USA with Google Voice (formerly GrandCentral) but EMEA and APAC support for VoIP is lacking (for now)" explained Hoogendoorn.
Another potential issue is that Google may not be at the same level as UC competitors like Cisco and Microsoft when it comes to compatibility. The modular nature of unified communications allows organizations to add components to their existing infrastructure, and most leading unified communications platforms are able to integrate with each other to some degree.
The ability to add Google products to an existing network communications environment, and get those products to work smoothly with unified communications components from other vendors is questionable.
If the price is right, though, even a platform with some issues is worth a look. From a consumer perspective, users are accustomed to using the various Google tools and services for free, but Google has also been steadily pushing its way into the enterprise, offering different variations of its consumer products, as well as enterprise-specific products like the Google Search Appliance, for a fee.
The cost of leveraging Google is typically quite reasonable, though. Hoogendoorn points out "If it helps Google to get more users on the Internet and exposed to its commercial services, it will probably be less expensive than anything we have today."
Even with all of the overlap with UC, the stealth attack on unified communications may be a surprise even to Google. Google prides itself on breaking barriers, innovating new uses for technologies, and blazing its own trail.
It's possible that Google is living in its own world and that the mirroring of UC functionality is a pure coincidence.
Regardless of motive or intent, the fact is that Google offers a fairly comprehensive and cost effective alternative to enterprise UC platforms, and businesses should take a look at what Google has to offer before investing in unified communications.