For True UC, Remember Smartphones

IT's been pushing UC and mobility initiatives on separate tracks. But if either is to realize its full potential, CIOs must make integration a priority.

March 16, 2011

9 Min Read
Network Computing logo

On their own, both unified communications and mobilization have the potential to revolutionize communications. Employees want the same capabilities on their smartphones and tablets as they have on their desk phones and laptops, and from a productivity standpoint, it makes all the sense in the world for IT to accommodate them. So why do most analysts peg mobile UC adoption at less than 10%?

The problem is twofold. First, enterprise adoption of UC has been slow and haphazard; respondents to our most recent InformationWeek Analytics Unified Computing Survey blame this on everything from a lack of employee engagement to aging infrastructures that limit their ability to guarantee consistent quality. Many companies, facing tough budget choices, are still limiting their efforts to IM/chat and voice over IP. Second, there's a systemic integration gap between mobility and almost everything else that goes on in IT. Smartphones are everywhere and tablets are gaining, but we're behind on security, application development, and management, not just UC.

Vendors aren't much help, either. While UC is being driven by enterprise software and hardware companies, mobility is dominated by the consumer market and handset and mobile software vendors. As such, efforts to merge the two have to be driven by CIOs. You're just not going to find sexy mobile UC applications at the iTunes App Store.

For IT, even as employees are knocking your door down looking for support to extend beyond industry-standard BlackBerrys to iPhones and Android smartphones and tablets, the mobile UC tools from the likes of Avaya, Cisco, and Microsoft that could make integration easier haven't been widely adopted. Sure, the clients are included at no cost with the vendors' packaged licensing options, but in many cases, you're getting what you paid for. Their capabilities are simply not as well thought out or compelling as the ones employees have natively on their devices, because mobility buyers are pursuing initiatives to boost productivity that are independent of UC. Push e-mail, pioneered by BlackBerry, has now become standard on smartphones, so secure interfaces to platforms like Microsoft Exchange are just expected. With core functions like e-mail, text, contact, and calendar synchronization, even the ability to join a conference with a single click, supported through virtually any smartphone platform, why would users willingly install other clients, especially on their own devices?

You have to sell this. Harness the enthusiasm for extending rich communications capabilities to push for a revitalized--and this time truly unified--fixed-mobile integration program. Employees should (and want to) be free to move transparently and securely among all their communications channels. Most important, they should be able to begin a communications thread on one device and pick it up later on another. Contacts, with their presence status, should be visible on the mobile device, and the employee's presence (including the fact that he's mobile) should be visible to contacts. Existing mobile apps give users the ability to synchronize e-mail, contacts, and calendar entries between desktop and mobile devices, but we should also empower users to integrate call logs and text chats. For example, if the CFO makes or receives a call on her desktop, she should be able to see it on her smartphone and vice versa.

Further, we should welcome some of the leading-edge capabilities from the consumer market into our enterprise mobility programs. Probably the single biggest gap is in capitalizing on location information--consumer services from Foursquare, Facebook, and their ilk are leaving enterprise offerings in the dust. But think of the value of location-based presence status updates. Today, UC presence engines can change a user's status based on calendar entries, schedules, and other factors. Most can recognize when someone is engaged in a wired network call. And virtually every cell phone has location capability built in. Combine them--with proper privacy controls--and we can know where a user is, and based on that, automatically change his presence status.

Yes, it sounds ambitious. But fail to encompass all these channels, and the value of your efforts drops off sharply.

Get Your Layers Straight

Vendors such as Avaya, Cisco, NEC, and Siemens highlight the UC capabilities of their IP PBXes as a major selling point. However, while an IP PBX combines voice, data, and video at Layers 1 through 3, UC is about integrating those functions up at Layer 7.

Software vendors, particularly Microsoft, are working to push UC forward. Redmond is looking to expand its toolset to incorporate voice and video, and has made major headway in deploying its Lync UC product, formerly Office Communications Server. The most recent version of Lync, released in November, sports telephony elements beefed up to the point where Microsoft feels it can compete toe-to-toe with the likes of Cisco and Avaya. However, the initial version of Lync is focused primarily on desktop installations, and while Microsoft had a mobile client for the earlier OCS version, that client operated on the Windows Mobile operating system.

Nokia recently agreed to adopt Microsoft's new Phone 7 operating system in place of Symbian, and Microsoft in turn is planning a Phone 7 Lync client ahead of developing clients for Android, BlackBerry, and iPhone.

As if the ever-changing platform landscape weren't challenging enough, CIOs also must navigate the evolving nature of policies governing mobile devices. Where in the past, companies provided key employees with smartphones, typically BlackBerrys, and then enforced strict usage rules, more and more businesses are adopting a "bring your own device" philosophy.

Not all the CIOs we work with are on board with this shift, in part because it saddles IT with an unpalatable choice: Maintain a laundry list of applications for various operating systems and releases--there are potentially six versions of Android in circulation, for instance--or adopt a Web-based platform and hope it performs properly with the variety of mobile browsers in use.

chart: What's your level of interest in Wireless?

What Do You Mean By 'Mobile'?

CIOs striving to marry two big initiatives with expensive, and unnecessary, overlap first must define what versions of mobile UC IT will support. If users travel far and wide, cellular network services will be the only option. For employees who spend most of their time in the office, a well-designed wireless LAN can provide a lower-cost and often higher-quality alternative.

At a high level, mobile UC systems can be grouped into three categories:

>> WLAN-based systems: While the vast majority of today's laptops and netbooks have WLAN capabilities, voice handsets that operate on Wi-Fi also are popular in some industries. The two largest suppliers are Cisco, with its 7921G and 7925G handsets, and Polycom-SpectraLink, with its 8000 series. These devices, which are geared primarily toward voice and support few mobile UC capabilities, have found acceptance in key verticals, including healthcare and big-box retail.

>> Dual-mode Wi-Fi/cellular: By using handsets capable of operating on either Wi-Fi or cellular (primarily GSM), these systems can hand off calls between the two networks with no disruption. By some estimates, 40% to 60% of cellular calls are made and received while the user is in the office--within range of the Wi-Fi network--so you could significantly reduce cellular charges and help with indoor reception issues. Virtually all smartphones now have Wi-Fi capability.

>> Cellular-only mobile UC: Vendors including Avaya, Cisco, IBM, and Microsoft have developed mobile UC products that work solely on cellular networks but provide a rich set of UC features, such as directory access and presence. Further, cellular-only systems support a much wider range of handsets, including BlackBerry and iPhone. The downside is that they lack the ability to operate over Wi-Fi.

These cellular-only mobile UC systems employ a software client that sits on the smartphone and uses the cellular data service to exchange signaling messages with the IP PBX system. Users can view the corporate directory (with presence status) over that path and receive voice-mail alerts, and when call are placed to their desk sets, their mobiles ring simultaneously and they can see caller names and numbers there as well. In essence, the cellular data service provides an out-of-band signaling channel to the user's mobile device to enable UC capabilities. Good cellular coverage within the building is essential; mobile operators are increasingly turning to in-building cellular repeaters, distributed antenna systems, and new technologies like femtocells to improve indoor reception.

If you support tablets, you'll want to take these into consideration too; we discuss decision points as well as architecting a voice-capable WLAN in our full report.

Where To Start

The parallel developments in unified communications and mobility are simply too important not to merge them. There are a few important steps companies can take today to start moving down this path.

>> Develop a mobility initiative: Most companies are still treating mobility as a cost to be managed rather than a capability to be capitalized on for business returns. This effort should be led by IT professionals with good systems sense, the ability to work in rapidly evolving environments, and a solid understanding of wireless networks.

>> Take inventory: Assess where you are in terms of both your UC deployment and your mobile strategy. If necessary, yank UC out of the hands of the "voice people" and link it to desktop initiatives, like e-mail and IM. A mobile inventory should involve your cellular carriers, devices, ecosystems (iPhone, Android, BlackBerry), and mobile applications plans.

>> Go talk to your business units: Line-of-business managers are heavily invested in mobility today and are well aware of developments on the consumer side. You will have to show why it's important to incorporate UC; our surveys show user malaise as a key reason many initiatives falter.

>> Get some pilots going: Once you know what you've got and what your business units are looking for, put together a plan to close the gap. Given the early stage of development for many mobile UC products, the early stages of your plan may involve a good deal of pilot testing. Pay particular attention to user interfaces and calling procedures. Most users are unwilling to abandon the familiar features of their smartphones, so get as many of the available options as possible into users' hands as soon as possible to see if they measure up.

Michael Finneran is an independent consultant specializing in wireless technologies, mobile unified communications, and fixed-mobile convergence. Write to us at [email protected].

Strategy: Mobile UC

Into the Fold: Mobile Unified Communications Within Reach
Become an InformationWeek Analytics subscriber and get our full report on bringing smartphones into the UC fold.

This report includes 19 pages of action-oriented analysis. What you'll find:

  • 6 steps to a voice-ready WLAN

  • 9 top fixed-mobile convergence

Get This And All Our Reports

InformationWeek: March 28, 2011 Issue

InformationWeek: March 28, 2011 Issue

Download a free PDF of InformationWeek magazine
(registration required)

Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox
More Insights