Smartphones and tablets are slated to replace traditional computers and desk phones as the primary devices used for unified communications for the first time in 2013, according to a recent report from Campbell, Calif.-based Infonetics Research Inc.
It's not exactly breaking news that enterprises need greater flexibility built into their unified communications strategies, particularly when it comes to supporting UC on various types of mobile devices and operating systems. But as mobility becomes an absolute requirement, the sluggish UC as a Service (UCaaS) market might finally have a chance to blossom, as businesses look for more elastic offerings to satisfy users' evolving needs.
Will mobility nurture the UCaaS market?
A recent survey of UC professionals revealed that 71% of enterprises list mobile device integration as a "very important" part of their UC strategies, noted Diane Myers, principal analyst at Infonetics. Myers, who wrote the report, surveyed 102 UC decision makers at medium and large enterprises that use Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, email and instant messaging.
Many companies -- especially large enterprises -- traditionally have favored on-premises UC deployments, but the demands of mobility could lead them to accept cloud-based UC, another name for UCaaS. The study found Cisco (followed by Microsoft and IBM) to be the most commonly installed UC vendor among the companies surveyed. All three vendors have UCaaS offerings.
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"UC vendors have been hyper-aggressive about expanding their UC offerings into the mobile space," said Bill Haskins, senior analyst for Wainhouse Research LLC. He noted that Cisco's Jabber client and Avaya Inc.'s Flare platform for mobile communications and collaboration work across many devices.
Regardless of how aggressive a vendor is about a new product, however, the market is ultimately driven by the endpoints employees are using, Haskins observed. "Smartphones and smart devices -- like tablets -- are for the first time being seen as capable endpoints," he said. "The number of video-enabled endpoints is over 600 million, which now dwarfs room-based telepresence [deployments], which account for less than 0.2% of the overall video-capable devices used in the enterprise today."
Which does mobile better, UCaaS or on-premises UC?
While users are demanding a more mobile UC experience, the migration to UCaaS won't exactly be smooth.
The biggest challenges are finding a UCaaS provider that can support all the features the enterprise wants to deploy, then finding a way to ensure the network will have sufficient bandwidth to support video and audio across the wide area network, Hawkins noted. Meanwhile, some UCaaS offerings, like Microsoft's Lync Online, enable users to access UC services over a general Internet connection, which IT pros have virtually no control over. "Enterprises have to answer fundamental UCaaS questions like, 'Can the network handle QoS [Quality of Service]?' and 'is there monitoring in place to locate any choke points?'" he said.
Vendors with traditional premises-based products aren't faring much better, but their problems lie more in developing or refining mobile clients, said Elka Popova, program director of UC and collaboration at San Antonio-based Frost & Sullivan Inc. IT pros also face several challenges when they try to support more devices and applications with on-premises UC products, she said. This is where multi-tenant UCaaS and hosted UC offerings can benefit the enterprise. "With cloud-based UC, it's easier to support multiple users on multiple devices and networks, regardless of location," she said. "Remote workers, coupled with the growing use of mobile devices, will be some of the big drivers for UCaaS."
Popova has forecasted the multi-tenant UCaaS and hosted UC market to grow by 30% over the next five years. But in order to ramp up UCaaS adoption, support for cloud-based UC has to start with the vendors. "UC vendors are going to have to develop soft clients for the different mobile devices and be able to make these applications compelling from a cost point of view," she said.
Because cloud-based and hosted UC offerings have long-term operational costs, the benefits aren't immediately translating to the enterprise. "Enterprises are still very conservative, and IT will never really be out of the game within larger businesses -- even if the servers are sitting somewhere else," Popova said. "IT, not the users, will ultimately determine how technologies are deployed and managed."