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BroadSoft Plots a New Path to Mobile UC

I spent a day at the BroadSoft Connections conference in San Antonio last week to get a look at what it had that was new and exciting. As my focus is almost exclusively on enterprise mobile technology, I've gotten out of the habit of going to UC vendor conferences (Oh boy, you mean you've got a new line of desk sets? With color displays?). Many of these vendors seem to have simply run out of ideas on how to be relevant in mobile and persist in redoubling their efforts at "beating dead horses"-- that's a reference to their stand-alone mobile UC apps. What got me interested in BroadSoft was its relationships with wired and wireless service providers, and how it is leveraging those relationships to deliver new types of enterprise mobile service.

BroadSoft is not a name that regularly pops up in the UC business. The company sells its BroadWorks UCaaS platform on a white-label basis to service providers, each of whom sells it under its own brand name. The company originally offered BroadWorks for providers to run on their servers, but BroadSoft now hosts it on its own servers and offers it via the cloud under the brand name BroadCloud. With roughly 600 providers worldwide offering services based on BroadWorks, the company claims to support over 15 million seats in use worldwide; that's more than three times the number of Cisco HCS seats in use.

While you may not be familiar with the BroadSoft name, the company counts AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Windstream and Vonage Business among its providers. Internationally, Deutsch Telecom, Vodafone, Orange, BT, and Telecom Italia all use BroadWorks. Perhaps BroadSoft recognizes this lack of familiarity as well, because one of the key elements in the company's new marketing plan is to "come out of the closet," and have various providers identify the underlying platform by using the tag line "Powered by BroadSoft" in their marketing materials (for more on BroadSoft's marketing plan, read "The Big Reveal: Powered by BroadSoft").

What first put BroadSoft on my radar was a new enterprise fixed-mobile service from Verizon Wireless called One Talk. NoJitter contributors Dave Michels of Talking Pointz, Brent Kelly of KelCor and I have all written about the service.

By integrating BroadWorks with the Verizon wireless network, business customers can get a true one number service where the same Verizon number would ring on a desk set and a mobile device. This should not be confused with the traditional (i.e. dead horse) mobile UC offerings where calls to the desk phone are rung simultaneously (i.e. forwarded) to the mobile and there is a mobile client for the user to place business calls that are routed through the cloud- or premises-based UC system.

In the One Talk offering, both the wired and mobile phones utilize VoIP. The wired call is delivered over a wired Internet connection, and the mobile call is delivered over the 3G or 4G cellular data service or Wi-Fi. Verizon has yet to take steps to improve the Wi-Fi service performance as Cisco has through its alliance with Apple. Most importantly, when the user is placing an outbound call from the mobile device, they can use the native dialer rather than a separate mobile UC app. Initially that native dialer function was only available on Android devices, but a beta version of the iOS dialer using Apple's new CallKit API was on display at Connections; general availability is promised by the end of the year. [Note: Cisco has delivered a CallKit-enabled interface for Spark, and Microsoft is planning one for its Skype for Business offering.]

There is also a second version of the One Talk service that requires an app on the mobile device, depends on separate wired and wireless numbers, and uses call forwarding to provide a simultaneous ring function. This is essentially a "dead horse" service like I referred to earlier and is guaranteed to fail just like the 50+ attempts at the same idea that have preceded it.

The stars seem to be aligning for what BroadSoft has to offer. First, more and more enterprise buyers are questioning the need to supply expensive desk phones for an increasingly mobile workforce, particularly when those desk phones can't match the users' smartphones in either functionality or in the user experience they can deliver. Secondly, the mobile operators are seeing their growth rates stall as we have now reached the point where the number of mobile lines in service exceeds the global population, and so operators are desperate for new growth opportunities. Lastly, through its carrier-hosted BroadWorks platform, BroadSoft has developed relationships with hundreds of carriers worldwide, many of whom operate mobile as well as the wired networks.

Among BroadSoft's biggest advantages in penetrating the enterprise mobile market are experience and global scope. Many of the international operators have been far more aggressive than their U.S.-based equivalents at integrating mobile devices into their offerings; that is particularly true in Europe and Scandinavia. The U.S. may have been a lot faster bringing 4G services online, but they have lagged behind in integrating mobile devices into their enterprise offerings. Those integrated fixed-mobile solutions used traditional 2G cellular calling services as opposed to VoIP, and hence were able to offer native dialer capability without the need for things like CallKit. However, they still need integration with the carrier network to take advantage of the native dialer, which is something that only BroadSoft has been able to pull off.

For the moment, One Talk offers a rather rudimentary set of PBX features, but traditional features like group pick up and call park have little relevance when we're talking about mobile devices. One of the big challenges going forward will be to determine which PBX features truly are appropriate on a mobile device.

In his piece on BroadSoft, Brent Kelly wrote that the company was "in an excellent position to remain among the top three or four cloud communications companies." I'd take that a step further and say that with its ability to integrate its solution with the mobile operators, BroadSoft's solution offers a vastly improved version of mobile integration than the other contenders, at least for voice services. Apple's CallKit allows any platform the ability to offer native dialer integration on iOS devices, but feature integration will require integration between the UC platform and the mobile carrier's call control.

The key will be identifying which UC features are appropriate in a mobile environment, and that will involve avoiding the temptation to drag along too many vestiges of the days when enterprise PBXs (with their 250+ features) were a "must have." That approach reminds me of Microsoft's first shot at Windows Mobile where they attempted to clone a desktop experience onto a mobile device -- the first of many bad decisions that have led to Microsoft's current sorry position in mobile.

BroadSoft has breached the walls of the carriers' networks, and with its BroadWorks platform the operators can natively deliver PBX and UC-type features that enterprise customers need rather than having to resort to the type of work-arounds that resulted in virtually useless (and "user-less") mobile UC apps.

The biggest challenge may be to get enterprise customers to understand that the game has changed in mobile UC. So little has happened in mobile UC over the past 10 years that the vendors have stopped thinking about it, and IT departments have left the decision on how to operate while mobile up to the users. After all, it was the users who decided that what the UC vendors were offering for mobility simply wasn't worth the trouble.

This time around they just might get it right.

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