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Cloud providers deliver mobile collaboration apps better than on-prem

Jessica Scarpati

Employees want to collaborate via tablets and smartphones, and they're not waiting on the IT department to support mobile collaboration applications via on-premises servers in a corporate data center.

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Enterprises simply aren't equipped to meet the ever-evolving device landscape and sub-second latency requirements of mobile collaboration, which means unified communications (UC) pros must get over their cloud hang-ups when it comes to mobility, according to one expert.  

"If you've got a great wide area network and great edge caching, and you do a tremendous job of data replication, then you're fine—but in truth, nobody does," said Ted Schadler, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, who recently published the research note Mobilize Your Collaboration Strategy. "Those are the places where the cloud suppliers have an advantage."

About half of the smartphones and 70% of the iPads that employees use on the job are purchased by those employees as their personal devices. These users will accept "instantaneous or nothing" in terms of performance of mobile collaboration apps, according to the report.

If I'm installing SharePoint or Exchange or Lotus Connections, I'm only updating that thing every three, four or five years, so I'm always lagging behind the requirements of the mobile workforce.

Ted Schadler
Vice President and Principal Analyst, Forrester Research

Collaboration and UC pros have been ambivalent about cloud-based UC in general. Resource-strapped small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) have embraced it, but larger organizations remain skeptical about cloud-based UC reliability and feature richness. But the demands of mobility change that, Schadler said.  

"Mobile [collaboration] will be one of those things that makes cloud computing interesting, relevant and really a must-do," he said. "The cloud is the right architecture for the work-anywhere workforce."

Of the eight mobile collaboration services outlined by Schadler—email/calendars, document-based collaboration, Web conferencing, activity streams, presence/IM, social collaboration, expertise location and video conferencing—most cannot tolerate more than a second of latency. Traditional on-premises client/server delivery models can't ensure that for mobile users collaborating in real-time over 3G and public Wi-Fi networks, Schadler said.

"Let's say you're going to get a file for a Web conference or you're doing a social profile lookup [on a mobile device]; latency's a big deal. You don't want to be waiting around," he said. "So the big phenomenon is employees are not waiting [for IT to respond]. They're just using consumer vendors of their choice to get the job done."

Users also expect mobile collaboration apps to constantly be refreshed to work on and be updated and optimized for any device—no matter the manufacturer, operating system or form factor, Schadler said. The on-premises world just doesn't move fast enough for that, he said.

"If I'm installing SharePoint or Exchange or Lotus Connections, I'm only updating that thing every three, four or five years, so I'm always lagging behind the requirements of the mobile workforce," Schadler said. "The mobile platforms are changing so rapidly that only the cloud providers have the resources and the willpower to upgrade their systems to support [them]."

Mobile collaboration in the cloud: Is it the only way?

Although the cloud collaboration space is still evolving, the vendor landscape is already diverse—ranging from incumbent UC vendors (Cisco Systems and IBM) to established cloud players (Google and salesforce.com) to niche startups (Evernote, DropBox and SugarSync), Schadler said.

Video conferencing vendor Logitech LifeSize entered the fray—somewhat—this week with the announcement of a cloud-based video conferencing service, LifeSize Connections, and the acquisition of Mirial, an Italian vendor specializing in mobile video conferencing. Polycom also  announced this week the availability of cloud-based collaboration services through some of its partners, but none explicitly stated it would offer cloud-based mobile video conferencing.  

LifeSize will initially support Connections on desktops and room-based endpoints, but it plans to use Mirial's technology to launch a cloud-based mobile video conferencing service, according to Michael Helmbrecht, vice president of product marketing at LifeSize.

"It's just much simpler and easier than the on-premises model," Helmbrecht said. "Now, there are tradeoffs to it, too. You're putting it into the cloud and ceding some control to the cloud, but fundamentally I think collaboration solutions like this that let users collaborate the way they want to ... are going to be a big asset to organizations."

But not all vendors agree—even those with cloud collaboration products—that public cloud services are the only answer to mobile collaboration. The risks still outweigh the benefits for many UC pros, said Caleb Barlow, director of unified communications and collaboration at IBM, which only supports online meetings and email on LotusLive Mobile. 

"A 'generic' cloud will not meet [enterprises'] needs for compliance, security and back-end application integration," Barlow said. "IBM's current thinking is that private clouds may be the way to go, and we are running experiments in this area."

Cisco, which supports cloud-based mobile collaboration via WebEx and its partner-driven Hosted Collaboration Solution, was also dubious that mobility is incompatible with on-premises collaboration platforms.

"I think you are likely to see a mix of deployment models," said Mike Fratesi, senior manager of collaboration solutions marketing at Cisco. "We've got customers that are using the mobile softphone solution we have, which goes directly into the enterprise telephony server, and then using the WebEx mobile application on the same device. So when they're in a conference, they're going to the WebEx mobile [application] in the cloud, and when they're placing a phone call or accessing voicemail, they go through the on-premises solution."

The transition to cloud-based mobile collaboration will be neither quick nor easy, but it will be necessary, Schadler contended. Collaboration pros who resist may find themselves wasting time and money maintaining on-premises platforms that users have largely abandoned, he said.

"I'm not saying IT is dying to use the cloud. What I'm saying is the business [users are] doing it already ... and they're not waiting for IT to get [its] stuff onto their iPads," he said. "You could solve the problems [of on-premises platforms]—but you just have to spend a lot of money to do it, and if you don't do it right, your users will be disappointed and they'll [find] an alternative." 

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


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