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Agito Posts a Dual-Mode FMC First: BlackBerry Support

Agito Networks, manufacturer of dual mode Wi-Fi cellular fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) systems, announced that it has overcome one of the major obstacles that has hampered the adoption of these systems: support for BlackBerry smartphones. With the largest share of the North American enterprise smartphone market and an enviable loyalty among its users, nobody is getting far in FMC without BlackBerry support. This development has brought two of the core elements of Mobile Unified Communications together.Dual mode solutions that hand off calls between public cellular and enterprise WLANs were the original model proposed for FMC, and solutions of this type are available from DiVitas, Varaha, and Siemens as well as Agito. Avaya, the pioneer in dual mode FMC, did have an offering but abandoned it earlier this year when they entered into a preferred partner agreement with DiVitas. Given the closed nature of the BlackBerry development environment, dual mode systems had been limited to supporting a mix of Symbian (Nokia) and Windows Mobile devices. Varaha also supports the iPhone, but without the automatic handoff capability.

Trying to get BlackBerry users to switch to one of those other environments was essentially a no-win situation. That left users to choose between the cellular-only BlackBerry-based mobile clients from the PBX vendors (e.g. Cisco Unified Mobile Communicator, Avaya one-X Mobile UC, Siemens OpenScape Mobile, etc.) or RIM's own FMC solution, the BlackBerry MVS.

According to Pejman Roshan, Agito's co-founder and VP of Marketing, they bet the farm on getting BlackBerry to work. At one point they had about 50% of their engineering staff working on this one project. According to Mr. Roshan, The software is supported on a selection of 8300, 8800, and 8900 Curve models as well as the 8900 Bold. All of the supported models are for GSM networks, as RIM does not make any Wi-Fi equipped CDMA devices. That may change with the Storm 2 due out over the summer.

The news was something of a shock to their competitors, all of whom have been trying desperately to develop a BlackBerry interface. Importantly, Mr. Roshan notes, their product is not a "hack" but rather uses standard BlackBerry APIs. That is critically important as it ensures that the software will work on subsequent BlackBerry releases. Like their Symbian and Windows Mobile implementations, users can roam in and out of the Wi-Fi coverage area using Agito's location-aware handoff, and it can support in-call feature access on their full line of supported PBXs (e.g. Cisco, Avaya, Nortel, ShoreTel, Alcatel-Lucent, etc.).

There are still gaps in the solution. First, with only GSM models supported, that leaves no BlackBerry solution for the 60+% of US cellular subscribers on CDMA networks like Verizon and Sprint. The Agito solution will work with AT&T and T-Mobile as well as Rogers in Canada. However, T-Mobile is marketing their own dual mode solution based on the same Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) technology they use for their residential dual mode service, Unlimited HotSpot Calling (formerly [email protected]). The enterprise version called Wi-Fi Calling for Business can include the BlackBerry MVS, but T-Mobile's masterful marketing has left the service virtually unknown among enterprise buyers.

The other issue is functionality. Agito's standard implementation uses what we call a single path approach where all of the signaling between the mobile device and the controller is handled by DTMF tones sent over the cellular voice path. Most other solutions like DiVitas and BlackBerry MVS use a dual-path implementation where the signaling is sent over a parallel cellular data connection. The advantage of the dual path approach that UC-type features like directory access, presence and visual voicemail can be delivered to the mobile--you can't do that with DTMF tones. The offsetting benefit of their single path approach, Mr. Roshan notes, is faster call set-up and improved battery life.

Agito does support dual path as an option. In April, they announced their support for a Microsoft OCS interface based on a SIMPLE (Session Initiation Protocol for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions) interface. That allowed them to extend OCS-based presence (but not message waiting indication or visual voicemail) to Nokia and Windows Mobile devices. The initial dual path implementation for BlackBerry provides directory access, and they plan a second release towards the end of summer that will include Microsoft presence and IM support.

Conclusion All-in-all this is one small step in the advance of dual mode Wi-Fi cellular FMC. Without BlackBerry support, clearly that idea was going nowhere, but there is still much to be done. There's no CDMA support (so forget 60% of the US market), no UC-enhanced functionality, and they're going head-to-head with RIM's own FMC solution, the MVS. The MVS is now being marketed by virtually all of the cellular carriers, but it too is an imperfect solution, as it is cellular-only (i.e. no Wi-Fi voice to reduce cellular usage) and supports BlackBerry devices exclusively.

The people who will be impacted most by the announcement are the other dual mode suppliers, DiVitas, Varaha, and Siemens. They all recognize the critical importance of BlackBerry support, even a limited version of it, and will now have to figure out how to get it done on their platforms. The picture we are left with, however, is a jumbled mess of "conditional if's." If you have this PBX, on that cellular carrier's network, your WLAN is voice-capable, then you can get this set of capabilities, with this handset but not that one--and on it goes. In a formula like that, there are simply too many ways to lose a sale.

A tremendous opportunity exists for someone who can deliver an FMC solution that supports the full range of devices, on the full range of networks, with a consistent set of UC-based features through a consistent user interface that works as a real mobile adjunct to the desktop. We're not there yet.