Understanding mobile unified communications (UC) products

In the first two parts of this tutorial, you learned about mobile unified communications (UC), including the benefits of mobile UC and how to implement it. In this tip, you will learn about mobile UC products, including mobile UC vendors and fixed mobile convergence (FMC) vendors.

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In the first two sections in this series, we defined unified communications and its benefits and described the various implementations for both fixed mobile convergence (FMC) and mobile unified communications (UC). In this last part, we look at the range of products that implement these various capabilities.

The market for UC, and mobile UC in particular, is developing rapidly, and new capabilities are being added at a frenetic pace. Given that, we will not attempt to identify the specific features in each product, as such an analysis would be out of date almost immediately. Further, the pricing for mobile UC capabilities is typically tied to other functions, so it is nearly impossible to isolate a specific price for mobility. Accordingly, we will look to define the major categories of suppliers and the general capabilities we find in each category, and to identify some of the distinguishing characteristics.

Mobile UC elements

As the benefits of mobility are widely recognized, the good news (and of course the bad news) is that there is a wide variety of mobile UC solutions from which to choose. The mobile UC solution itself will involve three major elements:

  • Unified communications platform: The UC platform will include the directory, integrated presence application, APIs, and the user dashboard to access the various communications and data-sharing capabilities.
  • Mobile network infrastructure: The network infrastructure would include the wireless networks, cellular and/or Wi-Fi, over which the UC solution will operate. If the solution involves handing off connections between Wi-Fi and cellular networks, a mobility controller will be needed to coordinate that function.
  • Mobile client device: Mobile UC solutions operate on smartphones for which the vendor provides a special client software package, which limits the choice of user devices. That can be a major issue if the users are already accustomed to a device that the mobile UC vendor does not support.

Mobile UC suppliers

Mobile UC providers can be grouped into three major categories:

  • Unified communications vendors
  • IP PBX vendors
  • Auxiliary FMC hardware/software vendors

Unified communications vendors

Among software vendors, IBM and Microsoft have been the primary providers of unified communications platforms. IBM's offering is called Sametime and works with (or without) its Lotus Notes product. Microsoft's UC platform is called Office Communications Server (OCS) and integrates with Active Directory, Exchange Server and other elements in the Microsoft product line.

Both IBM and Microsoft have developed a mobile client for smartphones that allows them to support mobile users; Microsoft's is called the Office Communicator Mobile, and IBM's is called Lotus Sametime Mobile. As IBM and Microsoft provide UC platforms, their solutions must be integrated with the physical infrastructure. For mobility, they both depend primarily on cellular rather than WLAN networks, which can ease the integration but may increase the network cost.

The UC platform vendors are strengthening their alliances with the infrastructure vendors, so we can anticipate a richer set of network options as time goes on. The move toward universal SIP-based IP telephony solutions virtually ensures more functional integrated configurations in the future.

IP PBX vendors

IP PBX vendors have a major stake in UC, as they recognize that their entire business model could be subsumed by the UC vendors. In effect, the hardware focus of the PBX is becoming less and less an issue as voice becomes "another application on the data infrastructure" and traditional desk sets are supplanted by soft phones and mobile devices.

The major IP PBX suppliers, including Avaya, Cisco, Nortel and Siemens, have developed their own UC solutions, though they also have found it necessary to build links to the Microsoft and IBM UC platforms. Presence federation is key to these efforts, but the level of integration varies, and you must distinguish between the features that are available on wired as opposed to wireless devices.

Given their infrastructure roots, the IP PBX vendors have also been more active in promoting WLAN voice and fixed mobile convergence, so the range of network options for supporting their mobile UC solution is typically wider. Both Avaya and Siemens have developed Wi-Fi/cellular solutions with mobility controllers that support automatic handoffs, while Cisco and the others can provide that through alliances with the third-party FMC suppliers.

The IP PBX vendors also provide their own mobile UC products with names like oneX Mobile (Avaya), Mobile Unified Communicator (Cisco), and MobileConnect (Siemens). They will typically support a mix of Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, and Nokia/Symbian devices. Nokia has developed software for its dual-mode handsets that supports Cisco's SCCP signaling protocol for calls carried over a WLAN. The IP PBX vendors' FMC and mobile UC products are not fully integrated, so you will find a different set of features and devices supported on each.

Auxiliary FMC hardware/software vendors

A number of third-party providers also offer a variety of mobile UC solutions. Agito Networks and DiVitas Networks provide mobile UC solutions with automatic Wi-Fi/cellular handoffs that can be implemented on any TDM or IP PBX. Agito was selected as a Cisco partner to provide its FMC solution as part of the Cisco Motion announcement in May. FirstHand Technologies, recently acquired by CounterPath, OEMs its FMC solution to Nortel and other PBX providers.

Along with these, any number of vendors are providing different pieces of the mobile UC puzzle. RIM acquired Ascendent Systems, which offers an FMC solution for BlackBerry devices. Companies such as Speech Design, Zeacom, OnRelay and Cicero Networks provide software-based solutions that depend primarily on cellular-based mobility, using either single-path (i.e., DTMF over cellular voice) or dual-path (i.e., cellular voice plus signaling over cellular data) approaches. Only the latter has the potential to support the full range of mobile UC features.

Others, like Tango Networks and NextStep Networks, are developing solutions that cellular carriers can use to implement FMC. Finally, companies such as Airvana, Aricent, RadioFrame and Ubiquisys are building femtocells, hoping to cash in on the trend toward consumer and SMB UC.

Conclusion

Mobility and unified communications provide a powerful combination of capabilities to improve business productivity. However, a successful implementation will require more than a vague commitment to mobility. To begin the process, organizations should take a real look at how they plan to run their businesses three, five and 10 years out, and they should begin to develop plans for the technology that will support those operations. Mobility and unified communications should be key elements in those technology plans. In the near term, organizations should begin developing the internal expertise to deploy and maintain those mobile networks and applications. One thing is clear, however. Mobility and UC will be key to providing the agility that businesses will need to compete in the future.

Be sure to check out the podcast on the top five tips that communication professionals need to know when investigating a mobile UC solution.

About the author:
Michael Finneran is an independent consultant and industry analyst who specializes in wireless technologies, mobile unified communications, and fixed-mobile convergence. With more than 30 years in the networking field and a broad range of experience, Finneran is a widely recognized expert in the field. He has recently published his first book, entitled Voice Over Wireless LANs -- The Complete Guide (Elsevier, 2008). His expertise spans the full range of wireless technologies, including Wi-Fi, 3G/4G Cellular, WiMAX and RFID.
 

This was first published in August 2009
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