When Unify invited visitors at last year's Cebit to test a new unified communications service, Project Ansible, it was nothing but a tightly scripted demo.
Since then it's turned into a real service, changed its name to Circuit, and picked up some paying customers. And at this year's show, Unify is adding new features to Circuit in an effort to lure more users over to the service.
Like Silicon Valley darlings Slack and Glip, Circuit gathers information in one-to-one or group threads that it calls 'conversations,' storing a thread of instant messages, files, videos and more for later reference. An advantage of these conversations over email is that their history is accessible to new team members, who might otherwise only be able to access discussions that happened after they joined.
The problem with most unified communications services is that they don't unify everything, leaving out email, say, or an existing phone system. That's the case with Glip, for example, which is fine if you live and work on the Web, using only Skype to make voice calls, but less useful if you need to use a real phone line too.
Circuit already combined voice, video, screen-sharing and chat with internal users, and made it possible to share files stored on its servers, but there were still gaps in its coverage that Unify is now moving to fill.
It was already possible to hold audio conferences through Circuit, but unless someone typed up notes, any information shared or conclusions reached were not held in the system. With Tuesday's update, Unify is adding an audio recorder to allow meetings to be stored and listened to within the conversation thread.
Many of the other additions make it easier to collaborate with people who aren't yet using Circuit, or simplify things for organizations that want to combine Circuit with other systems.
For instance, Circuit Enterprise Integrator links on-premise infrastructure to Circuit's U.S. or Netherlands datacenter, allowing businesses to use their existing identity management system or connect to a PBX.
Related to this, the Microsoft Exchange Contacts Connector makes it possible to click to call non-Circuit contacts from personal or global contacts lists, while the new Universal Telephony Connector hooks Circuit up to SIP voice platforms from Unify or other vendors. This allows users to make and receive calls over the public telephone network or via their regular internal phone number, using their PC or mobile device. (There's already a Circuit app for iOS, and Unify will release a native Android app in April.)
Circuit could already share files stored on its servers, but conversations can now incorporate files uploaded to a Box drive by non-Circuit users.
Outsiders can also participate in voice and video conversations, and share screens with Circuit users, without having an account themselves. A Circuit user can send out an invitation in the form of a Web link. Clicking on it sets up the conversation in a browser window. It's all done with HTML5, requiring no plugins, so at the end of the conversation no trace is left on the participant's computer.
Perhaps inspired by Google's Gmail Labs, in which the webmail system's developers experiment with new features to see if enough users are interested and able to figure them out, Unify has created Circuit Labs as a forum for testing new features or connectors -- either its own or from partners -- and gathering feedback before making them more widely available.
Circuit will have to gather momentum to avoid the fate of another Google experiment, Wave, the company's May 2009 entry into the field of conversation-based communication. The service ran for little more than a year before Google ended development and finally turned off the servers in April 2012.
Five months after its official launch, Circuit has just 12,500 users, fewer than Wave at a similar stage. Around 7,500 of those are Unify employees, said company spokesman Holger Stotz -- although that number will fall as the job cuts Unify announced last June take effect.
Stotz is optimistic about the service. Circuit now generates revenue, as users who signed up for a 60-day free trial at the end of October began paying to continue using the service at the start of the year.
Others in the industry are announcing changes to their unified communications systems at Cebit. Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise upgraded its OpenTouch Suite on Monday, and Polycom is due to make an announcement Wednesday.
Peter Sayer covers general technology breaking news for IDG News Service, with a special interest in open source software and related European intellectual property legislation. Send comments and news tips to Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org.