Mobile collaboration: Small screens present big challenges

Mobile collaboration on small interfaces challenges users who are dependent on mobile devices for document collaboration.

Employees aren't tethered to their desktop computer or laptop anymore. They are using a variety of devices to get their work done. As businesses support more employees who rely on smartphones and tablets for business processes, they are realizing the need for improved mobile collaboration.

While there are plenty of unified communications (UC) vendors offering mobile versions of their products, collaboration processes -- like document editing -- on a smaller screen presents unique challenges to users who depend on their mobile devices.

Users need organized mobile collaboration

Employees are still using email, instant messaging and document collaboration tools on their computers, but once the user leaves the office, the UC tools have to follow along on their mobile device of choice. However, moving from a large screen to a smaller interface can make collaboration disjointed and disorganized, said Yaacov Cohen, CEO of Harmon.ie, an Israel-based company that offers vendor-independent UC, collaboration and social networking aggregation tools for the enterprise.

The company recently released Harmon.ie Connect for SharePoint, a document and social information aggregation platform that allows users to follow documents and changes directly from their email on mobile devices. The platform -- which is currently available on the iPhone, iPad or desktop -- offers users the same activity stream across both desktop and mobile devices for a consistent user experience, Cohen said.

"Users want the same experience from their office applications wherever they are and on whatever device they are using," he said. "We need to empower the mainstream business user who uses [collaboration tools] as a means to an end, and make it as easy as possible for these employees to communicate and interact with fellow enterprise employees."

American Nuclear Insurers (ANI), a joint underwriting association based in Glastonbury, Conn. that insures nuclear power plants and related facilities worldwide, has been using SharePoint since 2006, and recently deployed Harmon.ie for SharePoint to integrate SharePoint with Outlook 2010. The platform will enable ANI's 35 users to store documents, alongside relevant emails and voicemails, said Dan Antion, vice president of information services at ANI.

Over half of the ANI staff is mobile, and they demand a collaboration experience on the road that is comparable to the one they use on their PCs, Antion said.

ANI employees often shared documents via email, but they had no easy way to view and edit attachments while traveling. "On the road and even in the office, a common complaint from our users was organization. They would keep documents in certain files in Outlook easily, but it's not as easy to move them into SharePoint," Antion said.

The need to converge email with SharePoint led ANI to Harmon.ie Connect. "Email has long been a part of our mobile strategy, and in recent years, having access to SharePoint mobility has been key," he said.

"Just like you can on the desktop, our users can easily save attachments from email to SharePoint all from the Harmon.ie app on their mobile devices," Antion said. "Our users are amazed they can actually edit documents or presentations from the road, and travel without their laptops."

Mobile collaboration: Size limitations for UC

While the big UC players -- like Microsoft, Cisco, IBM and Avaya -- are all aggressively building mobile collaboration environments that are comparable to their desktop collaboration products, there are certain features that make sense on a smaller screen and some that don't, said Bill Haskins, senior analyst for Duxbury, Mass.-based Wainhouse Research LLC.

Ideally, enterprises want to give their users access to the same collaboration tools on their smartphone that they have on their desktop. Many employees are using UC applications -- like IM and presence -- on their smartphones, but only a very small minority are using smartphones for desktop and document sharing, Haskins said.

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"As you get into more complicated, document-based capabilities, these tools are being used only when needed," he said.

While many users will access and view documents on their smartphones while traveling, a tiny interface is not an ideal form factor for editing. But tablets offer a better opportunity for more document collaboration, said Phil Karcher, analyst for Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

"[Users] aren't clambering for document collaboration on smartphones -- at least not yet," he said. But employees are interested in more complicated collaboration features -- like document editing -- on tablets.

For an optimal user experience, vendors need to move their tools from the browser and into a native application for mobile devices. "Users need native applications, and document sharing and editing with collaboration features -- like controls to maintain the same version across multiple platforms -- to address mobile collaboration on tablets," Karcher said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, news writer, and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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