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News From NEC

I spent the latter part of last week at NEC America's Advantage conference for consultants and partners in Nashville, and came away with a new appreciation of the company's somewhat unique spot in the UC marketplace. There were a number of significant announcements, but it appears that the company will continue to focus on its core strengths and proven verticals. However, mobility remains a challenge.

Shin Takahashi, President of NEC America, kicked off the conference with a quick review of last year's results. Globally, NEC Corporation reported $30 billion in revenue and $1 billion in profits across a broad, diverse product line. He reported that the marching orders from top management call for pushing global revenues to $50 billion in the next five years (an 11% CAGR), with 50% of that coming from outside of Japan. Clearly that's an ambitious goal representing a 44% non-Japan CAGR, since just 20% or $4 billion of current revenues are non-Japan.

There were a number of product announcements, the biggest being a new line of PBX appliances dubbed the SV9100 and SV9300, to replace the current SV8100 and SV8300--NEC has always had a creative flair when it comes to product names. The former supports up to 1,360 ports while the latter can grow to 2,048. So NEC continues to push its two-pronged strategy, with both appliances-based communications systems and the full software-based Univerge 3C offering.

There were also announcements of new endpoints. The new IP models are designated the DT800 series, while the look-alike digital models are designated DT400 series. The IP models now boast Gigabit models that sell for little more than 10/100 models, a big change from the Gigabit adapters NEC formerly required. Also, the digital models will sell at the same price points as the 10/100 IP models, and both product lines include 12-, 24-, and 32-button models with a choice of black & white or color displays.

The most interesting announcement was the touch-screen Android-based UT880, seemingly inspired by the Cisco DX Series. This is a video-capable desk set (the tablet component is not removable) whose screen presents a typical DT-Series interface. One interesting feature, addressing the concern that hackers could potentially take control of the camera, is a manual switch that buries the camera's lens behind a physical shroud when not in use.

Unlike the Cisco DX Series, users cannot download apps from the Google Play app store to the DT880. NEC plans to open its own app store, which will offer enterprise-oriented vetted apps to protect against malware. Partnering with a mainline Android supplier like Samsung may have been wise, as Samsung is years ahead of all of the UC suppliers when it comes to delivering what enterprises need in mobile devices.

Clearly malware is an issue with Android devices. In its 2014 Annual Security Report, Cisco Systems reports that, "Ninety-nine percent of all mobile malware in 2013 targeted Android devices. Android users also have the highest encounter rate (71 percent) with all forms of web-delivered malware."

Unfortunately, Apple's tightly controlled developer environment leaves Android (or Windows Phone if you want to buy a ticket on the Titanic) as the only available platform for mobile O/S=based desk sets. To address the malware threat, Samsung has come up with its own enhanced security mechanisms with its KNOX offering. Samsung will also be offering its own enterprise app store. I'd prefer to be tied into that Samsung ecosystem, rather than trying to crack the Android nut on my own.

NEC was also showing its developing DT770G iPad cradle with talk of potentially significant enhancements. Like the ShoreTel Dock, the DT770G includes an app that emulates a PBX station, and the cradle connects the iPad via Bluetooth and provides a handset and speakerphone.

Also like the Dock, the DT770G operates over the customer's in-house Wi-Fi network. That means that the Wi-Fi infrastructure will need to be voice-capable, but as the device is stationary, at least it will not face the problems we have seen with access point-to-access point handoffs. As the docks use the iPad's Wi-Fi interface, they operate on 2x2 802.11n radio interface. NEC was talking about an enhancement that would allow the iPad to operate over an Ethernet connection when docked, and over Wi-Fi when mobile, like Cisco's ill-fated Cius, but no dates were provided.

There were also a range of DECT-based wireless devices including a Vocera-like communication badge that would be capable of dialing a single pre-programmed number with the push of a button. There was also a prototype of an Android-based smartphone-like device that would support voice over DECT and data over Wi-Fi.

Taking a cue from Mitel's Wireless LAN Stand, NEC was demonstrating its WFAZ wireless adapter. The WFAZ can attach to any of NEC's IP desk sets and allows it to operate over a Wi-Fi network. This could be a handy way to install stations in areas where it is difficult or expensive to install cable drops--assuming there is adequate Wi-Fi coverage. A PC can be connected to the data port on the IP desk set, allowing for voice and data support over the Wi-Fi connection.

While a Wi-Fi adapter is useful, it has a limited potential market, and both the NEC and Mitel offerings use the outdated 802.11b/g radio link that delivers a maximum over-the-air data rate of 54 Mbps (half duplex). Higher-capacity 802.11n devices appeared more than 5 years ago, and organizations are now making plans for 802.11ac. Since all Wi-Fi stations associated with the same access point share a single channel, the presence of those b/g devices impacts the performance of 802.11n devices, giving the customer a reason to think whether b/g is really a good idea at this stage of the game.

On a positive note, NEC's dealers were in good spirits and backed the company's plans enthusiastically. I talked to dozens of them and across the board their businesses appear strong and they are enthusiastic about what they saw. However, my feeling is that enthusiasm comes primarily from the ongoing success of the legacy products. Mobility continues to confound the UC market, however, so it may be some time before we see tangible benefits and significant revenues coming out of the mobile side of UC.

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