While channel partners in the unified communications market have traditionally profited from selling IP PBXs, phones and video conferencing systems, a new opportunity has become available: using APIs to extend UC functionality into business apps and workflow.
UC APIs let developers embed functionality like telephony and videoconferencing into applications, effectively eliminating the need for users to switch to a dedicated UC app to communicate, according to Nemertes Research. This enables partners to tap into UC APIs to create customized, value-added services for their customers.
This is a niche to explore: The market for services is projected to rise to 66% revenue share of the $39 billion unified communications and collaboration (UCC) market in 2019, as software, platform and endpoint revenues continue a steady decline, according to Frost & Sullivan. In 2018, hosted and cloud IP telephony and UC services dominated at 39% share of global UCC services revenue, the firm reported.
The biggest opportunity for partners using APIs is in customizing or building offerings that meet specific customer needs, said Irwin Lazar, vice president and service director at Nemertes.
"For example, a partner could integrate a messaging service via an API to enable a customer to notify clients of upcoming appointments," Lazar said. Nemertes found that about 86% of companies are exploring digital customer experience initiatives to improve customer interactions across mobile, social and messaging channels. All of these channels can benefit from customizing and integrating existing business applications via APIs, he added.
Vendor support for API-based integration, custom offerings
To help partners take advantage of API-based opportunities in the unified communications market, vendors are offering training, technical assistance and access to app stores where developers can sell customized apps, Lazar said.
Irwin Lazarvice president and service director, Nemertes
Most API and communications platform as a service (CPaaS) vendors offer developer support programs that include training and technical assistance. Nemertes is seeing growth in available app stores as well, Lazar said. In addition, some vendors such as Avaya "offer a sandbox for developers to create apps and test various configurations before bringing them into a production environment," he said.
There is "growing interest among UCaaS vendors, VARs [value-added resellers] and ISVs in leveraging available APIs and CPaaS offerings to build custom solutions for their customers, and to integrate communications into existing business apps and workflows," Lazar noted. An example might be adding "click-to-call" into a CRM system or automatically logging inbound calls in a CRM.
"I think app stores will enable partners to begin to sell the capabilities they create for their customers by packaging them as a specialized app and selling through vendor app stores,'' he said.
Simplifying customer workflows
Services provider World Wide Technology (WWT), based in St. Louis, sees an opportunity in looking at new ways to use APIs for automation and analytics, such as provisioning UC services for hybrid deployments, said Derrick Monahan, practice manager of unified communications at WWT.
"Some customers want a simple workflow that expands outside of a traditional UC application," he explained. "When we are helping customers with UC API engagements, we tend to look at the larger picture typically through an ideation process. As a result, we may help investigate ways to build a custom digital transformation outcome that may include ... UC, mobility and customer experience."
But with the opportunity comes challenges, and the biggest one Lazar sees is the ability to find developer expertise. "API [and CPaaS] vendors like Nexmo/Vonage tout about 700,000 developers; others are diligently working to build developer awareness or create tools that enable nondevelopers to use API-based services," he said.
Another challenge is matching API capabilities to customer's business workflows, said Derek Lohman, Cisco prototype lead at WWT. The firm often finds there is less documentation and support available than what is normally available in a general release, he said. "It takes additional effort to continuously monitor changes and updates to the API capabilities to provide our customers with the most current features available."
UC APIs in action
WWT has developed several applications using Cisco's Webex Teams APIs, Lohman said. Many of them are API-based integrations using Webex Teams and workflow applications like Salesforce or ServiceNow, he added.
"These [API-based] integrations allow the customer to automate tasks or increase communication between teams," he said. "WWT also creates applications that use Webex Teams as infrastructure."
An example would be taking Webex Teams' messaging and voice components and adding it to a common mobile application. With Webex Teams infrastructure, a customer can create their own branded experiences for their end customers, Lohman said.
Unified communications market: What's ahead
Integrating and automating applications with AI systems is becoming a unified communications market trend, Lohman said. "If WWT can create experiences and automation that react in response to business variables around collaborative interaction, we will see a whole new paradigm in how we work together. Combining analytical data with how people communicate will break the mold of static meetings and allow teams to collaborate more effectively over geographic locations and different time zones."
And, he said, it will become "pretty interesting if we can harness the way people work and couple that with APIs that automate the process, while adapting to recurring variables." If that happens, there will be a real change in both innovation and productivity, he added.
Given a dearth of developer expertise, the most exciting unified communications market trend Lazar sees is functionality in new platforms from vendors like K2, Zapier and Whispir. These platforms enable "citizen developers" to easily add communications to their workflows through drag-and-drop user interfaces.
Expect to see these types of capabilities become standard among CPaaS and UCaaS vendors in the next few years, he said.