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Major Flaws in Apple's New UC Voice Capability

It sounded like I was talking from the bottom of a well. Maybe Apple doesn't get the fact that people expect to be able to talk on a phone call.

One of the big announcements we had reported on from last week's Apple's iPad Air 2 launch event was a new capability where an iPhone-Mac user could tether the iPhone to their Mac and to make and receive cellular calls through the Mac, essentially "UC without wires." I described this as "Apple's Take on UC", and with my characteristic enthusiasm, I went all-in for it. However, having now had the opportunity to test the capability, it is clearly still a "work in progress." In short, this thing can't make a phone call you can talk on!

For years I have pushed the point that one of the reasons UC hasn't taken off to the degree that it should was because Steve Jobs hadn't designed it. I was dying to try out this new integrated capability, one of a number of integrations across the product line that Apple is pitching under the headline, "Continuity." "Handoff" will allow a user to start a task on their Mac desktop or laptop, and then pick it up at the same point on an associated iPhone or iPad; all of the devices have to be signed in to the same iCloud account. With "Tethering", you could associate your iPhone with the Mac desktop or laptop to make or receive cellular voice calls, and also send and receive SMS text messages through the Mac's Messenger app.

Yosemite was already installed on my two Macs, and when iOS 8.1 became available for download early Monday afternoon, I downloaded it immediately. I found the set-up and operating instructions on line (I still can't find them on Apple's site) and set up both computers for phone calls and SMS messages. The activation requires that you to go to FaceTime on the Macs and the iPhone, but in the end, it was pretty simple.

With all of the necessary piece parts in order, I placed my first phone call through the Mac to my wife--and she couldn't understand me! In fact, she said the voice quality was so bad, if it weren't for the caller ID, she wouldn't have known it was me! She said it sounded like I was talking from the bottom of a well.

Recognizing something was amiss, I started troubleshooting. I checked the FaceTime Preferences and found I was using the Mac's internal microphone, so I switched it to the great Chat 50 USB speakerphone I use for my Lync calls (those sound great), but when I tried it, it still stunk. After that I tried my Jabra USB headset with the same result.

Along with the lousy voice quality, there was also a noticeable delay. I don't know how to account for that, as the iPhone was 6-inches from the Mac (i.e. no radio problems), and there was virtually no other traffic on my WLAN, so I can't see how there could be a problem there. I also checked with some of my pals (also Mac fans) and their experience was the same.

Maybe Apple doesn't get the fact that people expect to be able to talk on a phone call. The first two iterations of the iPhone could barely support an intelligible voice call, and it wasn't until the iPhone 3 that "telephoning" was something the iPhone could actually do. I went back and watched the tethering demo at the iPad Air 2 launch event, and Apple SVP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi's call to Steven Colbert sounded just fine. Maybe I should have called him?

While Apple has come up with a really creative concept, you also need to make those concepts work for them to have value. For the moment, the SMS capability works flawlessly, but voice tethering through the Mac is a total bust. For a company that is the proclaimed "master of user experience", Apple has clearly missed the mark on this one. However, as we saw with antenna-gate, Apple will lose little of its luster as a result.

So the rest of the UC vendor community can heave a sigh of relief, but only for a while. When Apple does get this right (and they will), then it'll be time to worry.

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