Business tablet hype at Enterprise Connect: Mobile UC pros skeptical

IT pros attending Enterprise Connect this week are enthusiastic about business tablets but not for mobile UC.

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Unified communications (UC) and mobility vendors have been hyping new and shiny business tablets for enterprise-class communications and collaboration, but UC managers aren't quite buying the message yet. IT pros attending Enterprise Connect this week are enthusiastic about tablets and thinking about supporting them -- but not for mobile UC.

Many UC pros at the Orlando-area conference this week said they plan to focus their business tablet strategy on supporting basic services -- email, calendaring, VPN -- as well as mobile-optimized versions of common business applications. Mobile UC functionality for tablets was greeted mostly with a shrug.

How are those end users going to actually use [tablets] to be more productive in their environments? They might be able to check the Web or ESPN … but we really don't see a true business need yet.

Doug Saunders
IT Director, Republic Services Inc.

"I really don't see us using [tablets] that way," said Ray Kaforey, network services manager at ESL Federal Credit Union in Rochester, N.Y. "I see [tablets] as having a place -- in the meetings rooms, for one, and I used it exclusively all day at the conference … [but] it's more of a productivity tool for us."

Kaforey wasn't using IM and collaboration tools on his Motorola XOOM this week. Instead, he used the tablet mostly for email and researching unfamiliar terms he heard during sessions.

This flies in the face of vendor messaging at this week's conference. Cisco Systems and Avaya each promoted a suite of native and integrated UC and collaboration technologies on their new business tablets, the Cisco Cius and Avaya Desktop Video Device, which runs its Flare Experience software. 

The most popular tablet maker, Apple, isn't even courting enterprise UC pros. Its unveiling this week of the second-generation iPad, so popular with many enterprise users, highlighted price, CPU and carrier choice. The front-facing camera intended for mobile video conferencing is VGA quality, or 640x480. By comparison, Cisco and Avaya support high-definition (HD) 720p front-facing cameras.

Business tablet: Real business case or 'cool toy'?

Kaforey expects many of his users won't look for sophisticated mobile UC tools on their iPads and BlackBerry PlayBooks; he anticipates they'll use tablets like he does. But he acknowledged that mobile UC may become relevant as the devices, applications and use cases continue to evolve.

"[My opinion] may totally change a year from now," Kaforey said. "I'm sure there are uses of tablets I can't even imagine right now."   

When asked about the UC case for business tablets, Nancy Maluso, vice president of UC at Avaya, downplayed the role of the tablet itself. Avaya built its Flare Experience software onto a proprietary tablet because nothing else on the market provided the "high-definition video, high-definition audio and drag-and-drop screen" that Avaya felt customers were demanding, she said. 

"Had there been another kind of device, we would've built it on that," Maluso said, acknowledging that not all users would need the sophistication of Flare on a tablet.

Avaya CEO Kevin Kennedy announced during a keynote at the show that Avaya would offer a Flare app for the iPad later this year.

Cisco also somewhat shifted its message at the show. Although previous marketing around the Cius has focused almost entirely on its mobile UC capabilities, Cisco executives and demonstrators on the exhibit floor also played up the Cius' virtual desktop capabilities as well as increased security and control functions for the Android Market, the mobile application store for Android devices.

Executives at waste management company Republic Services Inc. are demanding support for iPads and "whatever the new flavor of the week is," according to IT director Doug Saunders, who spoke on a panel at Enterprise Connect.  Because his team has struggled to measure the value of a business tablet as a business and communications device, Saunders has taken a "sit and wait approach" for now, he said.

"We can talk about iPads and all these mobile devices, but how are those end users going to actually use them to be more productive in their environments?" Saunders said. "They might be able to check the Web or ESPN … but we really don't see a true business need yet."

Vendors only breezed by the subject of mobile UC use cases during another panel discussion on business tablets. Instead, they concentrated on screen sizes, operating systems and system architectures.

Many enterprises don't really have the budget or interest in tablets, such as Cisco's Cius, and are only asking to see informal demos for now, according to Aman Chhabra, senior network engineer at Universal Understanding, a Cisco networking and UC channel partner.

"I don't think any [vendor] has it quite 100% right yet. I think we're still two or three years away from something that's [going to be] widely adoptable," Chhabra said. "I don't think it's more than a cool toy right now."

Wayne Jones said his boss recently bought iPads for him and his other direct reports at International Flavors and Fragrances, a New York City-based flavors and fragrances maker, where Jones is vice president of infrastructure services.  Jones and his peers mostly use iPad apps that have nothing to do with communications and collaboration. Instead they use apps "that make their lives easier," he said.

Jones said Flavors and Fragrances sales representatives might use an iPad app like OpenTable to book dinner reservations for client meetings, but UC tools are about shortening business cycles and improving collaboration between disparate teams.

Jones has developed an innovation team to work on mobile UC applications, but he said a successful UC and business tablet strategy will be one driven by user demand. "I don't think IT can really tell the [users] what's going to work for them," he said.

Business tablet complexity a barrier: International carriers, compliance are concerns

A mobile UC strategy on business tablets would raise issues of carrier and device availability across international borders, Jones said. International Flavors and Fragrances operates in 43 countries, and he doubts he could standardize mobile UC applications on a single tablet.

"Long term, what's going to drive [our mobility strategy] is what's available," he said "I can't go to Verizon and say, 'Hey, solve my problem in Indonesia.' What we're really looking at is a matrix of services [on a range of devices]."

Depending on the device, price may also be a barrier for some enterprises' business tablet strategy. Cisco announced at Enterprise Connect that it would slash the Cius' price from $1,000 to $700; general availability is expected in the first half of this year. Avaya's Desktop Video Device with Flare, which became generally available Dec. 21, costs about $2,000. 

Alejandro Peraza, senior network analyst at Beckman Coulter Inc., a Miami-based biomedical laboratory instrument manufacturer, said he "definitely" believes UC will be relevant to a business tablet strategy, but he has compliance concerns.

Peraza said his users would benefit from video conferencing-enabled business tablets when technicians are trying to repair a machine at a customer site and must collaborate with another technician back in the office. At the same time, however, his organization faces regulatory constraints -- technicians may not be allowed to use video when working on a machine that contains patient information.

"[I tell users], 'I can't help you because I'm going to lose my job.' That's our biggest challenge," he said. "It sounds great on paper, but we have to see … what our limitations will be."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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