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Mobile collaboration: Users need features, but not the whole tool set

Sophisticated mobile collaboration features are needed as users rely more on mobile devices. UC feature sets differ across tablets and smartphones.

Tablets and smartphones have unfettered employees from their office computer and deskphone. Users are enjoying sophisticated unified communications features from their desktops and laptops -- like instant messaging, presence, content sharing and audio and videoconferencing -- but up until now, mobile collaboration has been an afterthought for many vendors.

More users are connecting to company resources from their own devices and communicating with other employees remotely, and the bring your own device (BYOD) trend is pushing vendors to upgrade the mobile collaboration experience as mobile devices become the primary form of communication for many users.

"Vendors have to strive to create that consistent, preferred experience for users on mobile devices because they understand that's the direction business is going," said Brad Shimmin, principal analyst at Washington, D.C.-based Current Analysis Inc.

Mobile collaboration starts with audio, video calling features

Many unified communications (UC) vendors have launched their mobile UC strategy by starting with the basic communication features employees require -- audio and video conferencing capabilities and full device and operating system support. Whaleback Managed Services, a UC managed service provider has recently announced CrystalBlue (CB) Mobile for the iPhone, iPad and Android smartphones. CB Mobile is a software offering that allows any user device to operate as an employee's deskphone, allowing calls from the user's mobile device to appear as if they were made from their office phone number.

"Employees need flexibility," said Roger Walton, chief product officer for Whaleback Managed Services. "Wherever a user is, whether on a Wi-Fi or a cellular network, the user's smartphone can act as the employee's office line, rather than an independent cell phone," he said.

Once downloaded on a mobile device, CB Mobile allows users to make business calls without exposing their private cell phone number. The service also connects mobile devices to the deskphone, giving users access to their office phone system features, including three- and four-digit extension dialing, system speed dialing, voicemail and call forwarding, Walton said.

Videoconferencing has been increasingly important for geographically dispersed enterprises or home workers, but users can't be restricted to a desktop computer with a webcam, said Ali Giacomin, director of product management for ACT Conferencing, a Lakewood, Colo.-based audio and video conferencing software and service provider.

The service provider recently announced ForumCast, a new feature in ACT's ConferenceCast managed video platform that can connect users on Google Talk, Cisco Jabber or Skype on any endpoint -- whether it's an office-based conference room system or mobile device, she said.

"If [an enterprise] has dispersed people, they can easily connect into a Forum conference without finding a high-end video conferencing suite," she said.

Content sharing: Web-based vs. purpose-built apps 

As UC features evolve past audio and video calling for mobile devices, some UC vendors and service providers are starting to take advantage of browser-based technology -- like WebRTC -- in order to make collaboration tools easier to consume on a smaller screen. Purpose-built applications, however, are a better approach, Current Analysis's Shimmin said.

"The Web itself is still not mature enough to provide the type of user experience that is in demand right now by users … or reflect the type of device the user is on," he said.

Polycom recently announced the latest version of its own mobility application -- RealPresence Mobile 3.0 -- which will now be able to support LG, Samsung and Sony mobile devices. RealPresence Mobile allows users to join audio and videoconference calls, but content-sharing capabilities have been expanded in the 3.0 release, which will be available in July via the Apple App Store and Google Play, said Chris Thorson, director of product marketing for Polycom.

Previous releases of RealPresence Mobile software have allowed for PDF file-sharing via a link, but users will now be able to share Microsoft Word, PowerPoint or Dropbox files during a call with Mobile 3.0, Thorson said.

Mobile UC: What are users actually using?

Employees are starting to demand the same functionality -- like instant messaging (IM) and presence, videoconferencing and content sharing -- from any location on their mobile device that they have become accustomed to within the office. Thanks to real estate limitations, however, mobile UC and collaboration applications have traditionally suffered from a lack of functionality and a clunky user experience.

While some employees with particular use cases may be enjoying the bells and whistles of a fully loaded mobile collaboration offering, the majority of these UC features remain underutilized on mobile devices, said Bill Haskins, senior analyst for Duxbury, Mass.-based Wainhouse Research LLC.

Content and screen sharing is now possible on smartphones with certain clients -- Like Microsoft Lync 2013 -- but many vendors are focusing on the tablet for content sharing, with the expectation that users don't want this functionality on their smartphone's small screen, he said.

"People are trying to figure out how to use new tools, when they should and does it make sense. The considerations to effectively use these [tools] go far past just 'is the client available' anymore," Haskins said.    

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

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