Reality TV & Mobile UC: Two Genres, No 'Reality'
UC vendors can polish up their mobile UC apps all they want, but the truth is users still don't want them.
While Donald Trump is attempting to turn the American political process into a new form of reality TV, my wife's guilty pleasure (along with roughly 2 million other enthusiasts) has become the "traditional" reality show, "Naked and Afraid." In case you've missed this Discovery Channel gem, two people are dumped naked (interesting parts masked) in some God-forsaken hellhole for three weeks and if they survive this indignity, they actually win no prize whatsoever! Such is the allure of fame.
What got me thinking about this was last week's announcement that Microsoft is releasing a preview of its new Skype for Business apps for iOS and Android. These latest apps include new dashboards for easier navigation of contacts, calls and meetings, and updated versions of the In-Call and In-Meeting experiences. The new iOS and Android dashboards put the contact search bar, upcoming meetings, and most recent conversations in one place. If you have Lync 2013 on your iOS or Android device, you'll get the new Skype for Business app as an update later this year.
While reality TV has become something of a social phenomenon, anyone who looks into it will very quickly discover that the vast majority of reality TV shows is essentially scripted. The "actors" are subjected to lengthy auditions and background checks, and while producers don't provide a script per se, they absolutely shape the action. What appears on the screen are highly edited versions of events; these events are often created through multiple takes -- sometimes shot weeks apart -- miraculously woven into a single "conversation." And if the show involves a "competition," the producers are really the ones who decide who's getting tossed off the island, so to speak.
The reality of mobile UC apps is that outside of their vendors, nobody uses them -- and with good reason. While the Skype for Business mobile app is as good as any other out there, the idea of a mobile UC app simply doesn't fly with users.
Like we have seen from other UC vendors, we can expect Microsoft to conduct countless demos of the new mobile apps, but those efforts will create about as much reality as "The Biggest Loser." In the end what we'll have is another UC add-on that doesn't add value to the product or the mobile user experience but rather sits on the shelf (or, in the case of contestants on the Biggest Loser, doesn't lead to sustained weight loss). The UC vendors simply haven't found a meaningful way to integrate mobile and UC, and they continue to bark up the wrong tree.
I've written about this many times, but there is nothing in the Microsoft announcement that changes the calculus about mobile UC.
The fundamental problem is that smartphones already do UC. They don't call it "UC," but using a smartphone you can pull up a contact and click to call, text, email and, in many cases, initiate a video call. Most will let you click to join a meeting right out of the calendar. The process is fast, fluid and fun -- all the reasons people have grown to love their smartphone experiences. Actually, a lot of the capabilities that the UC vendors have built into their offerings seem to have been lifted wholesale from smartphones.
A mobile UC app takes the experience in the wrong direction. People love apps, but only if they do something useful. A mobile UC app does what the phone already does, only not as well in many cases; why open an app to make a phone call when you can simply make a phone call? Worse yet, the text capability generally doesn't work with SMS, the universal mobile texting capability, or with things like Apple's Messages or WhatsApp. Messages now integrates with SMS even when used from an Apple desktop or laptop.
If that's not enough, you have that loopy "hairpin" configuration in which calls from the mobile app are routed through the PBX or UC platform so you have two trunks tied up for the duration of any external call. The simultaneous ring feature (that people love) also ties up two trunks for every call that's forwarded to the user's mobile number. The ability to hide your mobile number from business contacts has value only in rare instances as salespeople routinely give out their cell numbers to customers and prospects.
The one feature that a mobile UC app gives you is presence, but users apparently don't find sufficient value in that to open an app just to make a phone call. The challenge for UC vendors is that the smartphone manufacturers recognize the importance of the user experience and dedicate a lot of resources into getting it right. Once they do that, they're not going to let others into the components that would allow them to mess with it.
I see only two ways out of this morass. One would be to somehow integrate meaningful UC functions like presence into the smartphone's native tools. That will be a tall order.
The other would be to create an app that actually provides sufficient meaningful functionality that users would find value in opening it. Social collaboration tools like Cisco's Spark, Microsoft's Groups function, or Unify's Circuit are aiming for that, but we've seen few reports of significant user uptake on those tools as yet. Unless customers are picking up on the whole plan, they're not going to need the mobile client that comes with it. That's a hard reality with which to deal.