Despite all the marketing glitz and glamour of mobile video conferencing on tablets or screen sharing on smartphones, unified communications (UC) managers say that their users' mobile UC tastes are pretty vanilla. Even with the flood of high-end mobile devices in the enterprise, most mobile users need just tried-and-true unified messaging services on their smartphones.
Fifty-six percent of UC managers identified access to corporate email and voicemail via smartphones as a feature that most would be most useful for their users, according to CDW's third annual Unified Communications Tracking Poll. The 900 survey respondents were asked to identify one or more desktop or mobile UC application that would be most useful to their users. The second most popular feature was the ability to receive voicemail messages via email (46%).
Ken Barnes, vice president of IT for a group of franchised JW Marriott hotels in Indiana, recently deployed mobile unified messaging services as part of a new Mitel IP telephony rollout to a new hotel in Indianapolis. He plans to extend find me/follow me features to some users but has no immediate plans to add more advanced mobile UC applications, such as IM or multimedia conferencing. His mobile UC investments are focused on simple features that deliver real productivity gains.
"[The hospitality] industry in general is probably slow to adapt to any emerging technologies ... and all of that is [due to] the erosion of revenue to help justify [the investment]," Barnes said. "So, it's been baby steps. It's been, 'Let's introduce IP telephony within the administrative offices' as the first go-round."
Inconsistent enterprise voice quality is the biggest challenge across various Android devices [because] different manufacturers have implemented different hardware chipsets.
Product Manager, Cisco Systems
Unified messaging services: An early phase of mobile UC, but not for long
Andy Dignan, senior manager of unified communications at CDW, said that unified messaging services for mobile devices "is almost a given if you've deployed UC properly." CDW expects enterprises to quickly augment mobile unified messaging services with more advanced applications, such as mobile IM, presence and video messaging, Dignan said.
"I know they all answered 'email and voicemail,' but I think that's only one bit of it," he said. "I think maybe what this highlights is the movement and shift of people looking at their smartphones as their business tool almost to the point of [preferring them] over their laptops."
But mobile UC vendors weren't entirely surprised that CDW's survey ranked unified messaging services above all else.
"Most companies are still in the early stages of their mobile UC strategy," said Connie Tang, a product manager for unified communications at Cisco Systems. "Conferencing, instant messaging and enterprise voice services over mobile devices are still relatively new applications available that not many UC [vendors] offer to date."
Terry Robinson, director of collaboration solutions marketing at Avaya, said about half of Avaya customers are in the earliest phases of a mobile UC strategy—working to bridge the IP PBX to the cell phone or smartphone for call routing. Mobile unified messaging services are often part of a second or third phase of deployment, she said.
Rob Arnold, senior industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan, said that trepidation around mobile UC won't last long. User demand for mobile unified messaging services will give way to more advanced features as the technologies mature, he said.
Meanwhile, unified messaging applications have evolved to do more than turn a voicemail into a WAV or MP3 file. Vendors have begun to include IP- and SIP-based speech-to-text and text-to-speech capabilities—an especially handy feature for road warriors who go hands-free on the road but must still remain connected, Arnold said.
"Feature phones ... didn't really have the data access to provide all the functionality [of mobile UC]," he said. "But smartphones are really exploding ... so what people are expecting now is access to the same types of features on a smartphone that they have on the desktop."
Mobile unified messaging services get easier, thanks to iPhone
Although the fractured ecosystem of mobile devices and operating systems was once an obstacle to mobile unified messaging services, mobile UC vendors and device manufacturers have improved support for more devices and platforms to achieve a consistent user experience.
As a result, mobile unified messaging services have become one of the simplest UC applications to deploy, usually requiring no more than a few configuration changes in IP telephony and email systems, Arnold said. Moreover, the price for software licenses has dropped dramatically over the years
"We actually see UM [unified messaging] growing at a faster rate than traditional voicemail," Arnold said.
Widespread enterprise adoption of specific smartphones—namely the iPhone—has enabled vendors to provide more reliable support, Dignan said.
"Some of the [earlier] mobile operating systems struggled with playing back WAV files that get delivered [to the mobile device], but for the most part that's been fixed," he said. "I think that's why you're seeing a lot of these vendors move to having applications for individual smartphone [models]."
The uniformity of the iPhone versus the diversity of Android-based devices has been a challenge for UC vendors, including Cisco, Tang acknowledged.
"Inconsistent enterprise voice quality is the biggest challenge across various Android devices [because] different manufacturers have implemented different hardware chipsets for the phones," she said. "With iPhones, since hardware is tightly coupled and controlled by Apple, the quality of experience is consistent."
The progression from mobile unified messaging services to other mobile UC applications will create some technical and logistical snags for UC managers, Arnold said.
"Mobile presence or mobile instant messaging can sometimes be trickier," Arnold said. "For mobile IM, you're constantly connected, so that may be a drain on your data plans as well as your battery. Same thing for mobile presence—the device would be constantly polling back and forth to update mobile presence."
The parallel trend of virtual desktops and the introduction of thin clients for mobile devices may compensate for those challenges, both Dignan and Robinson said. VMware and Citrix are working on platforms to turn smartphones into thin clients to run enterprise applications, such as unified messaging services or presence. If virtualization vendors are successful, they could solve the problems UC managers face around achieving service parity and not overburdening the devices' processors.
"I don't think we're quite there yet ... but it's going to make IT organizations' lives a lot easier," Dignan said.
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.