Unified Communications

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Will Mobile Drive or Replace UC?

UC vendors must create a more integrated experience on mobile devices to capture the ease of use and flexibility that users demand on smartphones and tablets—and to counter native capabilities that could make UC less relevant.

Smartphones and tablets are an ideal platform for unified communications. Indeed, UC features like presence, multimodal communications and easy access to collaboration capabilities are more important to mobile users than to deskbound workers. However, something is getting lost along the way. All the UC and IP PBX vendors have introduced mobile clients for iOS and Android, and in some cases for Windows Phone and BlackBerry platforms, but the truth is they rarely get used. In part it's because of limitations imposed by mobile vendors, and in part because the devices' native capabilities mimic many UC features.

So if we have these mobile UC clients, why isn't anyone using them? Having worked with countless clients on these initiatives, the answer turns out to simple: Users hate them! The problem is it's difficult to develop a mobile client that can deliver the type of engaging experience the user expects. The APIs for the different mobile operating systems allow access to different sets of capabilities, which can throw up roadblocks for UC development teams. As a general rule, iOS is the most restrictive environment because Apple wants to control the user interface--no surprise there.

As a result, the UC and IP PBX manufacturers have to develop a special client the user must open to place business calls. While the mobile UC client looks more or less like the native client on the phone, it means the user has to use a different procedure to make business calls than they use to make personal calls. It gets worse from there.

To provide in-call features such as call transfer, or to present the user's desk phone number rather than the mobile number for caller ID, all business calls have to be routed through the IP PBX or UC system. So when the user goes to place a business call, the UC or IP PBX system actually calls the user back on the mobile number. In most cases the user then has to manually answer that call, and then the system places an outgoing call to the other party. That's right--you have to answer the call you just made. Confusing, no?

In addition to turning the basic process of placing a call on its ear, every mobile call ties up two trunk connections on the PBX or UC system: one for the call to the mobile and one for the connection to the called party. Even though the call has nothing to do with the PBX, you need two trunks to support it. This in-and-out configuration is referred to as "hairpinning."

The Good Stuff

While the procedure for business calls can be frustrating, there are very useful features you can get from a mobile UC client. As noted, you can keep your mobile number private and publish only your desk number. In a BYOD world where employees often use personal devices for work, the separation of personal and business numbers may be welcome. Also, the client provides access to the corporate telephone directory, and in many cases can provide colleagues' presence status.

However, UC providers face competition from native capabilities of today's mobile devices. For instance, from the native directory we can either call, text or email a colleague; in some cases, we can even start a video chat. If we get a meeting invite, it goes directly into the device's calendar and we can join with a single click. All of this comes standard out-of-the-box with a user interface integrated into the phone.

The upside is that users do like what UC can deliver--they just don't call it "UC". Users also love their mobile devices and grow more dependent on them every day. These facts represent an opportunity that UC vendors can and should take advantage of. Otherwise, users could well be getting their UC from Apple and Android.

Michael Finneran is an independent consultant and industry analyst.

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