Me and My Mobile: Can Mobile Phones Replace Desk Phones?
In reality we're actually dealing with two questions: What does a mobile user need? and How should we mobilize them?
A recent article in ITPro raised one of the long-standing questions we face in the migration to unified communications (UC): will the mobile phone, particularly a BlackBerry smartphone, replace the desk phone? My immediate reaction was no, the softphone will replace the desk phone, but we'll still need to associate the mobile with it to provide the single number reach and anywhere accessibility that is becoming essential for highly mobile workers.However, the article is more an argument for making cellular service the basis for mobility, regardless of whether the user is in the building or on the other side of the world. It is making the case that all we need is a cellular billing plan that offers more attractive rates for calls made within the building, and we can forget about this problematic voice over Wi-Fi business. So in reality we're actually dealing with two questions: What does a mobile user need? and How should we mobilize them?
What Does the Mobile Worker Need? Just about all of us have a desk somewhere, and today we have a PC and a phone on it; that's one device too many. Of course if we travel a lot, we also have a laptop, and some users travel so much they have essentially abandoned their desktop PC and just plug in the laptop on those rare occasions they're in the office. They also plug in that laptop at home, in hotels, and if the company has provided a cellular aircard, just about anywhere else. No aircard, go to Starbucks.
Given the size of the screen and the keyboard, no one is talking about replacing the laptop with a smartphone. People seem to recognize the inherent limitations and use the smartphone as an adjunct to the laptop for immediate access to email and generating quick replies while on the go. We also get to check the news, play MP3s, and win trivia games with the help of Google. Of course, a smartphone can make a phone call just about as well as a desk phone, and with the onboard calendar and address book (assuming we keep our mobile life in synch), you could argue it does it better. Cell phone voice quality, reliability, and delay still leave something to be desired, but convenience is clearly winning out over quality.
The laptop or PC is staying, the cell phone is staying, so if we're clearing desktop real estate, it looks like the desk phone is losing out. As we move to the type of multifunction communication environment proposed for UC with dashboards, presence enabled directories, integrated voice/video/email/text along with collaboration, it does appear that the locus of non-mobile communications is moving to the PC. The smartphone can provide those features to a degree, and we can fully expect that users will drift back and forth between the smartphone and the cellular based on the task before them, where they are located, or simply their mood.
Make Mine Mobile When we look at UC and mobility requirements, the benefits come down to accessibility, productivity, and control. Key personnel should be reachable at one number and should have the ability to manage their availability and presence notifications. Single number reach can be arranged with the PBX's extension-to-cellular/simultaneous ring feature, and if the PBX can't swing it, there are any number of adjuncts including the BlackBerry MVS, the CounterPath Enterprise Mobility Gateway and the OnRelay MBX that can do the job. We can also go for the dual mode Wi-Fi/cellular solutions like those from Agito, DiVitas, Siemens (Mobile Connect), or Varaha that will automatically route the call over the less costly Wi-Fi network if the user is within range.
Improved productivity should be a byproduct of improved accessibility, but access to presence information, corporate directories, conferencing and other UC system features should help make mobile workers more productive as well. Control deals with security, which also extends to control of the telephone number. One of the advantages of the extension-to-cellular/simultaneous ring trick is that callers are using a business number, not the user's personal cellular number. While keeping the personal number secret is not a universal requirement, in cases where we have customer-facing personnel like salespeople, they can take their cell phone number with them when they leave, but we can retain control of customer contacts, which are important corporate assets.
Securing the contact number requires more than extension-to-cellular/simultaneous ring; that only deals with incoming calls. We also need a solution where all outbound mobile calls are routed through the PBX, so the caller ID provided is either the PBX number or the user's wired DID number. That involves installing a software client on the handset that automatically routes all outbound mobile business calls through the PBX; the dual mode solutions all provide that capability inherently, and the PBX and PBX-adjuncts have it in their mobile UC clients. Most solutions also offer dual persona so the user can make and receive personal mobile calls directly to/from their mobile number.
So the desk phone may go away, but we still need the desk number. Even though that desk number might be ringing a softphone along with your mobile.
Wi-Fi or Cellular? Everyone in the mobility space seems to agree on the basic capabilities we're looking for, the question is how do we make it mobile? For wide area mobility, cellular is, and will likely remain, the only viable solution for years to come. However, if the user is in the building or on the campus, we can also access them via the Wi-Fi network if they have a suitable dual mode handset. Back in January I wrote a post describing a presentation at VoiceCon San Francisco by DiVitas dual mode customer Greg Ireland of the Thirteenth District Court in New Mexico. He was able to cut his cellular bill 60% by moving in-building calls onto their existing Wi-Fi network.
That cost savings comes with some strings attached. One of the biggest shortcomings of the dual mode solutions today is that they cannot support BlackBerry devices. As it turns out, while some BlackBerry models do support Wi-Fi, they can only do Web access or the carrier-oriented Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) trick that T-Mobile uses for their Unlimited HotSpot Calling (formerly HotSpot@Home) service; there is no WLAN VoIP client for BlackBerry. Technically, you can use UMA handsets in conjunction with an extension-to-cellular/simultaneous ring solution, but you have to wonder how many elements you throw into the network diagram before reliability starts to suffer.
The cellular carriers like to point out that if you just stick with cellular service you get better quality, but frankly, that's a crock. The best MOS score you're getting on a GSM cell phone is about 4.0, and that starts dropping as the signal fades; 64Kbps PCM over a well-designed Wi-Fi network can hit 4.4. Getting a consistent 4.0 MOS with cellular will probably require an indoor antenna system, and you'll need that for every cellular carrier you use.
Conclusion When you hear RIM pitching the benefits of cellular over Wi-Fi, you have to be a little suspicious. Are they covering a product deficiency or just sucking up to the cellular carriers? Remember, they didn't build any Wi-Fi capability into the touch screen Storm device, reportedly at the insistence of Verizon. Perhaps we can improve the cost picture with a special billing plan for in-building cellular use, and all of the major carriers offer these. The problem is that you're now taking what is already a complex corporate cellular contract and adding yet another level of complexity; now you have to determine the best plan for in-house as well as traditional cellular usage. Mobility is one of the key drivers for UC, and from the buyer's side of the equation, I'd like to have all of the options available.In reality we're actually dealing with two questions: What does a mobile user need? and How should we mobilize them?