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Cisco Missing the Mark on iOS Calling?

Ever since the June Worldwide Developers Conference at which Apple announced the CallKit API that would allow VoIP apps to access the native dialer in the company's iconic iPhone, I've been wondering if this was the break UC&C vendors needed to develop mobile UC&C capabilities that users would actually embrace.

Well, coincident with the arrival of iOS 10, which supports CallKit on iPhones and iPads, Cisco released the latest version of its Spark app, available in the iTunes store for download. The latest version of Spark uses the CallKit APIs, and will deliver voice calling via the native Apple interface. As the basic Spark service doesn't include PSTN access, customers must purchase that service from a third-party partner or use an existing on-premises Cisco UC system with Spark Hybrid Services. (In a Cisco Blogs post, Jeff Reed, SVP of Cisco's Enterprise Infrastructure and Solutions Group, released further details on the company's ability to prioritize data from specific applications over Cisco Wi-Fi networks, but that will be the subject of a future blog.)

First-Mover's Advantage
Both of these initiatives resulted from the partnership Apple and Cisco announced back in August 2015. An app that allows users to make and receive VoIP calls through the native iPhone interface could give Cisco a significant advantage over the other UC&C suppliers. But at the end of the day, as I see it, Cisco appears to be delaying the opportunity to create a meaningful competitive advantage in UC&C and instead is choosing to pursue a short-term (and fundamentally meaningless) PR stunt with Spark -- I'll be back to that in a moment. Even so, Cisco is still miles ahead of its competitors, which are still flogging the dead horse that is the separate mobile UC app.

Using the CallKit API, UC&C suppliers or anyone that makes a VoIP app for the iPhone can now provide a voice user experience that is essentially identical to what Spark users get when using an iPhone (one upgraded to iOS 10) in native mode. That means:

Misplaced Loyalty?
The app doesn't link to Apple's FaceTime or iMessages, but users can utilize Spark's video and texting capabilities, said Jonathan Rosenberg, Cisco fellow and VP/CTO for the company's Collaboration business. This capability could signal a major turning point in the quest to mobilize UC&C that even Mr. Rosenberg acknowledged in his blog has been a failure. As he wrote:

Actually, there's more to it than that.

The fact of the matter is that the assumed "benefits" haven't outweighed the overall inconvenience of having a separate app to make business calls. Users vote with their feet (or their fingers in this case) and these non-integrated mobile UC apps lost -- totally. As I've been saying for years, no sane person is going to go through the trouble of opening a separate app to make a business call. Callers are going to use their beloved mobile phones just the way they were meant to be used, with a beautifully designed user interface and not some lame workaround cobbled together by the second (or third) string developers.

While Cisco got the right idea and the opportunity to capitalize on it through the partnership with Apple, it chose to use the opportunity for the newbie Spark rather than the tried-and-true UC software. How do you justify ignoring the millions of seats on Cisco Unified Communications Manager (CUCM) and pursue the eight guys who are using Spark? If Cisco really wanted to move the needle on mobile UC, it'd have chosen to start with Jabber, since that's the client all of its CUCM customers are on.

Well, perhaps "ignoring" is the wrong word choice. Cisco isn't so much as ignoring its legacy UC software as it is back-burning it as regards to the native dialer capability. While Rosenberg confirmed that Cisco has a CallKit-enabled version of Jabber version planned, he did not specify a timeframe for delivery. By placing phase one development effort on Spark, it would seem Cisco has in essence chosen to create an "improved product demo" to spur sales of a product that doesn't yet appear to be holding its own against the likes of Slack and Atlassian's HipChat.

Mum's the Word
The good news is Cisco at least has a plan, which is more than we can say about the other UC&C vendors.

Note that Microsoft is also a potential beneficiary of the CallKit API, as at the developers conference Apple also showcased it for that UC&C giant as it did for Cisco. However, all of the references were to Skype, as opposed to Skype for Business, and we haven't heard anything about a CallKit-powered iOS for either of them since.

Not a single one of the other UC&C vendors has said a word about a CallKit-based app, so we can only assume they have given up on a meaningful mobile UC&C capability all together. Mobility is the single most important development we have seen in IT in this century, and without a meaningful mobile capability that users will embrace, UC&C is a fatally flawed offering. Apple remains the dominant mobile platform among enterprise users, though Android's share continues to grow (with Samsung's recent problems I'd shy away from saying it is "catching fire"), and CallKit finally gives the UC&C vendors a way to build mobile apps for iOS that address the biggest challenge to user acceptance. But Cisco is using it to make a better demo for a product that appears to have little traction to date -- when it gets something to serve the millions of CUCM users, we'll know it's serious.

Despite that, Cisco is still out in front of its competitors, which seem content to continue with the delusion that their non-integrated mobile UC&C apps have a future.

One step forward, two steps back.

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