Do You Really 'Need' a Mobile UC Client?

As I was going through some of my really old blogs, I found a reference to a product called Seamless Convergence pitched by Avaya and Motorola back in 2004. The goal was to allow mobile connections established by users of the special Motorola CN620 handset to flow seamlessly between a Wi-Fi network and Cingular's cellular network (yeah, this was before the "AT&T Wireless" rebranding). As it turned out, Seamless Convergence never got off the ground because Cingular refused to certify the handset... and so began a long line of failures in getting a meaningful mobile capability for a PBX.

As we enter 2015, mobile UC remains one of the most overhyped and underutilized capabilities we have ever seen. Like most No Jitter readers, no doubt, I have sat through countless Enterprise Connect demos, vendor events and sales presentations touting the importance of mobility in UC, and have heard countless analysts from Gartner on down proclaiming mobility to be an essential UC capability. And, yet, user uptake remains all but nonexistent.

Outside of a few special cases where phone numbers must stay hidden, no mobile UC client has gained meaningful traction. I credit some top-notch marketing for creating the impression that something with virtually no users can still be seen as "essential."

Mobile UC Over Time
Over the years the focus of mobile UC has changed as the UC market has developed. At the outset, mobile UC was primarily about fixed-mobile convergence, with companies like DiVitas Networks and Agito Networks (since acquired by ShoreTel) taking up the idea of seamless convergence. As it became apparent that UC was more than just "voice," the vendors began pushing the ubiquitous (though rarely utilized) mobile UC clients. In an exhaustive study I did back in 2009, I found close to 100 of these things, including some involving the carriers -- specifically Sprint and T-Mobile -- as well as UC vendors.

In the typical setup, a mobile device client communicates with the PBX's telephony server (e.g., Cisco Unified Communications Manager) over a cellular data service and provides a presence-enabled directory on the mobile device. Calls placed by mobile users are passed through the PBX, which provides the user's desk phone number for the caller ID. We call that configuration "hair pinning," and the result is that two PBX trunks (or SIMs in SIP) are tied up for the call's duration. Incoming calls to the desk number are forwarded to the mobile number with the simultaneous ring feature. More than anything, my clients seem to be interested in whether they can forego UC licenses for highly mobile users entirely, and simply use some type of gateway to forward calls to their mobile numbers.

As I have written about many times, people find the simultaneous ring capability a great way to get their calls while they were out, but don't consider the mobile client worth the bother when placing calls. In essence, the native interface on the mobile phone provides its own brand of UC with an integrated directory, click to call/text/email, and click to join a meeting from the calendar -- about the only things missing have been presence and texting between the desktop and the mobile device (although Avaya and some others do offer SMS integration). For the most part, people us the mobile texting options (SMS, iMessenger, WhatsApp, etc.) to reach their colleagues.

The Mobile Collaboration Story
The one bright spot in mobile UC may be collaboration. While users aren't interested in placing phone calls with a mobile UC client, they do need to participate in Web conferences on a tablet or potentially a smartphone. Many of the offerings include browser-based capabilities to attend a Web conference, but full participation (including the ability to run the conference) typically requires the client. Mobile collaboration clients represent a different use case than traditional mobile UC clients and organizations should evaluate these separately.

portable
An example of the Unify Circuit mobile UC client

portable
An example of the Unify Circuit mobile UC client

Last year brought a new twist to the mobile UC picture with the arrival of a new wave of social collaboration tools, including Unify's Circuit and Cisco's Project Squared. Such capabilities had existed previously in IBM's Connections and in a variety of Microsoft offerings, but 2014 saw an expansion from software vendors to traditional IP-PBX vendors. All of these feature mobile clients, but their success will hinge largely on how effectively those companies can sell the overall concept of a social collaboration platform, and that could be an uphill climb (see my recent post, Leading Users to the Promised Land).

The question at the heart of this -- Do we really need mobile UC clients? -- is one I'll be asking during a session, What Do Enterprises Want in a Mobile UC Client?, I'll be moderating at the Enterprise Connect conference coming March 16-19 in Orlando. I'm waiting to see if vendor representatives own up to the fact that user adoption has been embarrassingly low (something they do admit to in private) or if they go for the "usual" response, which is to cite the number of people who have downloaded the app -- a meaningless statistic, as everyone in the mobile space knows.

The All-Important Mobile UC Use Case
When advising clients on what mobile solutions might be right for them, I routinely caution them to first understand that this is not an all-or-nothing decision and that it is important to know the use cases the various products support. I also stress the importance of field-testing the different options with real users (i.e., not IT folks who like to play with things) before making any sizable commitments. Web collaboration on tablets might be a boon, but nothing seems to have changed with regard to mobile clients for voice, text and email.

What is clear is the move to "bring your own whatever" is effectively putting users in the driver's seat regarding the technologies they will use to get their jobs done. Short of an outright technology edict, the success of these mobile UC capabilities will depend on their ability to demonstrate that they can provide a positive benefit and a compelling user experience. The old adage still holds, "Just because you can build something, doesn't mean anyone actually needs it."

You can find Michael at Enterprise Connect at the session he mentioned above (What Do Enterprises Want in a Mobile UC Client?), as well as at these:

Follow Michael Finneran on Twitter and Google+!

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  • Follow Michael Finneran on Twitter and Google+!

    @dBrnWireless

    Michael Finneran on Google+