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Avaya Emerges from Chapter 11 with Vague Cloud Ambitions

Telco giant Avaya is finally out from underneath the massive burden of debt that has hobbled its cloud R&D for years, but its strategic roadmap back to relevance isn't very clear.

Avaya’s epic 10-year battle with its crippling $6 billion debt load is coming to an end. After spending 2017 restructuring under Chapter 11 protection, the telco giant emerged today adamant that it’s stronger than ever. But just because it’s gotten some financial breathing room doesn’t mean a triumphant return to market dominance a sure thing.

It’s been a roller coaster last couple of years for Avaya, whose financial struggles hampered its ability to invest in the emergence of cloud-based technology on par with most of its competitors. We watched throughout 2016 as the company tried one move after another to escape its debt load. Rumors were rampant, covering everything from the company coming up for sale to speculation it would off-load its lucrative call-center business.

Finally, in January of this year, Avaya pulled the trigger on Chapter 11, and the future began to look, if not exactly rosy, then at least not as bleak. Amid its efforts to restructure its balance sheet, the company sold its networking business to Extreme Networks for $100 million this summer. Now, Avaya is going into 2018 as a publicly traded company with over $300 million in cash and a debt load that’s about $3 billion lower than it was going into Chapter 11, and it’s positioning itself once again to be a legitimate competitor to longtime rivals like Cisco, as well as the new, agile born-in-the-cloud players springing up like weeds around it.

But despite all of its confidence, Avaya’s ability to compete in a cloud-based world is still very much in question.

Like most telcos, Avaya was hit hard by the advent of cloud technology and the industry’s transition from hardware to software and services. And its capital structure going into Chapter 11 was developed a decade ago to support a hardware-centric business model. Avaya still posts consistently high earnings and has a strong brand presence, loyal customer base, and ecosystem of reseller partners who still make their bread and butter on Avaya products. But it’s struggled both to keep up with competitors that have had the resources to devote to cloud-centric R&D, as well as integrate all of the disparate product lines, channels, and services it acquired through buyouts of companies like Octel and Nortel.

“It’s the new Avaya,” Gary Levy, VP of US Channels, told Channel Futures this week, “with a refreshed commitment to our customers and our partners, and an open approach to everything we do.”

But the arguments it’s making for why it’s still a force to be reckoned with sound a bit stale. The company only this year developed a cloud specialization for partners, for example.

“We’ve put forth, in anticipation of the exit, the next generation of our program that centers more around cloud specialists, cloud integrators, and agent programs so we’re opening our solutions up to more than just the traditional VAR/reseller,” says Levy. Which is great, but it’s a pivot that most of its legacy competitors made awhile ago, and one that its newer rivals never had to make to begin with.

In fact, much of the language Avaya is using to detail its new competitive strengths sounds strangely anachronistic. Its messaging emphasizes being able to offer customers their choice of public, private, or hybrid cloud solutions, and says Avaya’s new channel ecosystem is comprised of a “new” kind of partner like those with agent models or MSPs with line cards that include Avaya--which are pretty threadbare selling points moving into 2018.

It’s not as if Avaya has no cool products to promote. Avaya Breeze, its communication-app and workflow development platform, has received consistently good reviews from developers, for example. And its competitors’ much-hyped cloud-based collaboration platforms like Cisco Spark and Microsoft Teams are really still just hype. But those companies are doubling down hard on cloud innovations in UCaaS moving into next year, while Avaya’s still speaking vaguely about delivering “cloud your way.”

To its credit, Avaya’s 2017 hasn’t been as depressing as it could have been. Levy says the company signed 4,000 new customers and added 1,000 new partners. Given the circumstances, both of Avaya and a market that’s undergoing increasing consolidation, that’s not too shabby. But it’s not great, either. Analyst firm Frost & Sullivan says that hosted cloud contact center solutions will account for nearly half of the total seats base by 2020, up from just a quarter a couple of years ago--which means the market is growing so fast there should be enough opportunity to go around, at least for a little while longer as partners and end users wait for the dust to settle to see which providers emerge on top.

Levy says Avaya invested just over $225 million in R&D in 2017, and that it’s working to build an ecosystem of partners that will co-develop applications for next-gen technology like AI, IoT, and blockchain. It’s actually got some pretty cool next-gen initiatives going on, like partnering with Dubai’s Ministry of Happiness (yeah, really) on a blockchain initiative that analyzes interactions with UAE government services to determine how satisfied the citizenry is--a program that has clear implications on customer experience and call center technology.

Avaya has a lot of things going for it. It has a strong, old brand that stretches back to Grandma Bell. It has a giant customer base. It has a solid ecosystem of channel partners who built their businesses on being “Avaya shops.” And with this escape from the gallows, it has a brief, halcyon window where its salesforce, investors, and partners alike are entering 2018 re-energized and re-enthused.

But it also has a steep hill in front of it, pitted with competitors it’s struggling to keep up with and technologies it has yet to adopt. It isn’t impossible for Avaya to emerge as a market force again, but it will take a more focused direction and route into the cloud-based market than what we’re hearing now. As for its partners, here’s hoping Avaya’s 2018 channel focus is reassuring:

“To continue to build the strongest bonds with our partners, customers, and end users, and really put them in the heart of what we do every day. To allow them to deliver next-gen customer experiences, and continue of course the loyalty and relationships we’ve had for many years.”



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