Combination to Unlock Seamless Mobile UC All in the 'Digits'

portableWhen it comes to mobility and unified communications, the road into the enterprise has been a bit bumpy, but I hold out hope that new developments like Apple's CallKit API and T-Mobile's Digits service will make for a smoother ride going foward.

To understand the disconnect between mobile and UC that has existed for many years, you have to understand that UC was birthed in an era when voice calls on mobile devices were very expensive. This made cost avoidance the early benefit of integrating mobility and UC, as companies sought a way to pass calls without incurring high per-minute costs. And even when unlimited calling became the norm, many years passed before users and the industry finally got away from the notion that routing calls over the cellular network was a bad thing. But what's cool about routing calls over PSTN or cell networks? This is the era of convergence and VoIP, right?

Unfulfilled Promise
The smartphone seemed to be the perfect solution to all the problems. UC apps can make and receive calls over either Wi-Fi or cellular networks, can integrate full functionality, and can even add a corporate identity to a user's personal cell phone. The problem is that voice over Wi-Fi (or LTE), as implemented by third-party applications, provided an inconsistent experience. The data side isn't engineered to carry voice traffic and while OK for some users, it has not proven to be reliable enough for me to use except in special circumstances where cell signal is weak or when I'm traveling internationally. But now that international calling is available at low cost in many cases, I don't even need it for that.

I've tried a dozen or so services and UC apps over the years, both for myself and my clients, with mixed results. In trying to get a consistent and reliable experience, I've gone away from using UC apps for placing phone calls over Wi-Fi and LTE. Instead I've gone back to forwarding calls to my cell phone. But two glaring issues relate to this setup.

The first relates to placing calls. Most users, myself included, don't want to have to bring up a separate app to place calls. We want a single dialer interface that knows the difference between a business contact and a personal contact, and uses those smarts behind the scenes to place the call using the appropriate app.

While this functionality is possible with the Android OS, Apple has just scratched the surface with iOS 10 and the ability to integrate third-party apps with the dialer. I've been saying for years that this Apple limitation is extremely problematic for UC integration and a mobile-first strategy when so many business users have iPhones (an issue my fellow No Jitter blogger Michael Finneran has often pointed out as well, including in yesterday's post, "Apple CallKit Catching On."

The second issue relates to receiving calls. If you are using a UC app to receive your business calls, this is not a problem. But if you have your personal number forwarded to your business smartphone, you'll find a challenge in determining whether the incoming call is personal or business. This distinction is important as it guides me in both how to answer incoming calls and when -- or when not -- to answer incoming calls. As a general rule, for example, I don't answer calls to my business line on nights and weekends unless they are from clients. Some workarounds are available, but they don't offer the truly seamless user experience we all want and many users need to drive UC mobile adoption.

Closing the Gap
The good news is the industry is closing the gap on these last nagging problems. As I mentioned, Apple has opened up to third-party integration to provide a more transparent experience when dialing through other apps. Why it's taken so long is anyone's guess but I'm just glad it is finally here.

As for the issue receiving calls, the answer may lie with T-Mobile of all companies. While the announcement of its breakthrough service Digits (powered in part by former Mavenir/Mitel technology) was covered here by No Jitter blogger Dave Michels, it didn't receive the fanfare it deserved in the business world. And that is a shame because part of the value proposition applies much more to the business side of the house than the consumer side.

In a nutshell, Digits is a service that does two things: It allows users to have more than one phone number on a device, and it allows one phone number to ring on multiple devices. Both features are useful to the enterprise.

I have been playing with Digits for the past month as part of the beta program.

The first advantage of Digits is that it allows me to forward work calls to the secondary phone number on my iPhone. When a work call comes in, I see in the caller ID name description with the label "Business Call." Users can define the label for whatever purpose suits them. If the caller is in your contact list, you will not get this label as it will be replaced with the contact info. But you should be able to determine whether the contact is calling you on your work or personal line by who they are.

This is exactly what the business world has been clamoring for -- a dual-identity appearance. I can make and receive calls, text, and maintain voicemail boxes for each number. In iOS, you still need a separate app for making calls and managing messages on the second line, but hopefully Apple will work with T-Mobile to offer a more transparent experience.

The second advantage is being able to have your number work on multiple devices, so you can have two cell phones or a cell phone and a tablet with the same phone number... or even pull up a virtual cell phone experience through a Web browser. When I left my cell phone in my wife's car last week, I just simply logged in to the Digits site on my computer and could make and receive phone calls from and to my cell number. To take it a step further, with a new Digits-enabled SIM card, I could keep a backup phone and use it anytime I am without my cell phone. This would be great for employees who leave their phones at home -- just grab a loaner off the shelf, log in, and go to work.

Pushing for Innovation
My hope is that T-Mobile, as it has done in other areas, will force the industry to finally offer the innovation we need to complete the puzzle of a seamless, converged, mobile communications experience. And if we are lucky, Apple will decide to play along.

A few pieces to the puzzle are still missing. I'd like to see a tool that allows businesses to manage and assign secondary phone numbers to users, for example, as well as a tool that bridges the gap completely between a UC system and the secondary mobile phone number. And, of course, I'd also like to see the aforementioned cooperation with Apple.

These are all pretty daunting, yet I remain optimistic we will get there.

"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.