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Do tablet touch screen interfaces make mobile UC slick or clumsy?

Touch screen interfaces may not revolutionize mobile unified communications (UC) -- the keyboard's death knell hasn't rung just yet -- but they can make some applications more intuitive for users who otherwise find mobile UC too clunky.

Thanks to the iPhone, click-to-call has given way to touch-to-call as the de facto dialing mechanism on touch screen-enabled mobile devices. But does touch-to-collaborate or touch-and-drop video conferencing feel as natural for enterprise end users? Touch screen interfaces may not revolutionize mobile unified communications (UC) -- the keyboard's death knell hasn't rung just yet -- but they can make some applications more intuitive for users who otherwise find mobile UC too clunky.

"Touch screen interfaces are great for the Web-connected, URL-centric workplace that many information workers are increasingly living in," said Henry Dewing, principal analyst at Forrester Research. "I do not think of these as replacements for existing tools in an information worker's toolkit but as new tools better suited to performing a job."

Are users ready to ditch keyboards for mobile UC?

Although the gadget guy in him is wowed by some of the tablets on the market, Rob Minshall sees a lot of problems with deploying them in an enterprise setting. As MIS administrator at Volunteers of America of Florida, a nonprofit social services organization, Minshall has worked on outfitting about a hundred laptops with Microsoft's Live Meeting software, webcams, microphones and headsets so that counselors and health-care providers the organization employs or contracts out to will be able to take a more telemedicine approach with clients, he said.

Replacing those laptops with tablets would not only be expensive and raise concerns about their ruggedness, but Minshall also has serious doubts about users' willingness to divorce themselves from the keyboard and mouse.

"I won't say it's gimmicky, but it's got a long way to go," he said. "The workforce we have is a little older … and sometimes they're like, 'Oh, I don't know how to connect to that Wi-Fi network. That's too complicated' … so the decision then was that it'll be easier to type on an actual keyboard -- typing with two fingers -- than it would be to tap on a touch screen."

The workforce we have is a little older … so the decision then was that it'll be easier to type on an actual keyboard -- typing with two fingers -- than it would be to tap on a touch screen.

 

Rob Minshall
MIS AdministratorVolunteers of America of Florida

If he gave his users touch screen tablets, Minshall believes they would demand Bluetooth- or USB- keyboards and other accessories, which would limit the mobility of the devices.

"[If] you have to plug in a bunch of peripherals to it -- you plug in a keyboard, you plug in a mouse, you have an Ethernet cable -- it kind of limits [its ability to be] a portable tablet that you could take around with you," he said. "I look at a tablet as more of an add-on [device]."

The touch screen tablet as a secondary device -- reserved just for mobile UC -- makes sense as more users are "clamoring for more screen space or 'glass' to display their video and other communications," Dewing said.

"Think of a second collaboration device that hosts audio, Web and video communications from Twitter to desktop video conferencing," the Forrester analyst said. "[Users] can concentrate on and complete their tasks on a different screen -- unfettered by the 24/7, every-five-second pop-up that is becoming the normal communications mode in our ADD-infested workplace."

UC vendors gung-ho with touch screen interfaces, unveiling tablets to compete with iPad

Apple invigorated the market for touch screen interface tablets when it unveiled the iPad in April. Apple has mostly targeted consumers with the iPad, and enterprise IT pros are lukewarm to its potential as a mobile UC platform. However, end users, particularly executives, have pressured IT to support the iPad. Cisco Systems announced its touch screen tablet, the Cius, in July and has marketed it as a mobile UC and collaboration device for enterprises; Cisco has not confirmed when the Cius will be available to ship.

Not to be outdone, Avaya recently announced its touch screen interface and software platform, Flare, to run on its new Avaya Desktop Video Device.

On the Flare platform, users can "swipe" through a list of contacts and tap on one to see a person's presence, displayed with availability information for voice, instant messaging (IM) and video conferencing. Using the touch screen interface, a user can touch-and-drop multiple contacts to initiate conferences; break off groups into multiple, simultaneous voice or video calls by touching-and-dragging them under a different "spotlight"; swipe to rotate between calls, tap out IMs and emails on a visual keyboard; and share relevant documents by touching-and-dropping them into the session.

"These products are … much more efficient, much more compelling and frankly much more fun to use than anything anybody's ever seen before," said Alan Baratz, senior vice president of global communications solutions at Avaya, during Flare's launch event in New York City on Sept. 16.

Whether the "fun" factor carries much weight with enterprise UC pros is debatable, but the touch screen interface has emerged as the most natural fit for mobile devices and may sway some diehard desktop users to give mobility a chance, according to John Del Pizzo, director of unified communications and collaboration for IBM's Lotus products, which has expanded its Notes software to support the touch screen interfaces for the iPhone and more recently the iPad and Android devices.

"I think the touch screen device in mobile tablet form may end up replacing a lot of those fixed IP phones that do everything … [because] touch screen interfaces are certainly much more intuitive and easier than a phone keyboard," Del Pizzo said. "When I'm looking at my desk phone, I never remember how to make a three-way phone call. But if all I have to do is drag the names to an area … it's much easier."

Touch screens may not radically change mobile UC applications in terms of function or capabilities, but anything to improve the user experience should help galvanize adoption, he said.

"Does it change the UC functionality? Not so much. Does it change the UC experience? It probably optimizes it for the device that I'm using," Del Pizzo said. "The emphasis to me is not entirely on the touch interface but on the interface that works well on the device -- and the touch interface is the one that seems to be winning the hearts and minds of folks."

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

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