Mobile unified communications can take many forms, but it is essentially defined by the ability to deliver the forms of communication long associated with the office desk – ranging from voice and email to conferencing and instant messaging – to workers wherever and however they need them.
For example, unified communications from most major UC vendors like Cisco and Siemens Enterprise Networks now integrate SIP-based presence information, allowing authorized users inside and outside a company to see status information such as whether a person is at his desk, on the phone, or even on the road.
These offerings allow workers to see the same consistent set of presence information from both a desktop application or a mobile phone, whether they are connected directly to the corporate LAN, connecting through a VPN, or logging on over their phone's wireless data connection.
"I think the larger companies have been clearly pushing for this integration between desktop and [calling and conferencing tools]," said Nick Lippis, CEO of consultancy Lippis Enterprises.
Lippis said more and more companies want to allow employees to access the same set of tools whether they are in corporate offices, at home, or on the road with only a cell phone, a trend vendors are responding to.
He pointed to Cisco's work mobilizing WebEx as a sign of things to come.
"Right now, you're generally confined to your desktop [for conferencing]," Lippis said. "There's a lot of work that's happening right now, and we're just starting to see pieces of it emerge."
But just as important, he said, some of the more traditionally mobile features are being pushed back into the office -- integrated address books and click-to-call features, for instance, or even simply better handling of missed calls and caller ID.
"There are more mobile features moving to desktop than desktop features moving to mobile," Lippis said.
Savings the ultimate mobile unified communications driver
There is one feature that companies are looking to push from the office to outside workers: the savings IP telephony offers over traditional calling plans.
And companies are looking to find these savings for mobile workers of all stripes, whether they are logged on via a laptop or a Wi-Fi-enabled smartphone.
Features like seamless Wi-Fi-to-cellular handover, which provide both convenience and cost savings, are particularly appealing to companies that have remained skeptical about the value of fixed-mobile convergence because they can deliver an immediately quantifiable return on investment as calls move off the cellular network and onto much cheaper VoIP trunk lines.
Nick Howard, a systems manager at the education-oriented information tools vendor InfiniteCampus.com, is tracking that technology as a possible future option but for now has found other ways to reap mobile unified communications savings.
The company started moving its telephony platform from legacy phone lines to an all-IP Cisco system. While the savings for those users in the office were significant, Howard said, he found his biggest savings among the company's eight full-time remote employees and 50 occasional remote employees.
Previously, when those employees made calls to either customers or internal coworkers, the calls were placed over cellular phones or individual landlines, with calls costing about seven to eight cents a minute.
Internal conference calls involving multiple remote employees could easily rack up charges of $50 for a single call.
Now, no matter where they are working, InfiniteCampus's remote employees can plug a soft phone into a laptop and instantly get a secure VPN phone line that is routed through the company's central offices, skipping the need to use a mobile phone or an individual landline.
Those internal conference calls are now completely free, Howard said, and even long-distance calls made from workers on the road are now routed over the central office's T1 line dedicated to VoIP calls, which cost just a cent or two per minute, adding up to significant savings every month.
Luc Roy, vice president of product planning for Siemens Enterprise Networks, said a number of customers come first for the dramatic cellular savings the company's mobile OpenScape products provide.
"For customers that use this feature, we cut 40% [on average] off their cellular bill," Roy said. "That's the hard number, but there are also soft benefits ... such as you're always connected."
With companies fighting tooth and nail to keep customers, those "soft benefits" can quickly turn into quantifiable wins: Roy said that one customer reported that its "always available" ability saved an account worth $2 million.
Howard said InfiniteCampus's remote employees have made use of "convenience" features like 4-digit extension dialing, no matter where they're located.
"If they call into the office over the VPN and then dial over the 4-digit extension," he said, "it's a local call with no charge, and they can talk as long as they want."
But the unified communications platform has given added benefits in being able to keep a unified look at employee activity for performance tracking, which Howard said might be a "soft benefit" but was one of the most important features the new system offered.
For example, on a recent morning he had scanned through call logs and found that one support agent had clocked in for 40 hours of work but was only signed into the calling system for 14 hours that week. And his status was set to "away" for 10 of those hours.
"It was a pattern, not just that single week," Howard said. By tracking communications habits, good or bad, the company was able to review employee performance more easily and more objectively.
Such integrated, automated tracking would have been impossible without the IP telephony upgrades, but now all employees are on the same, consistent voice system.