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Smartphones Finally Focus on the Enterprise

Are the smartphone guys really, finally, training their sights on the enterprise market? According to The Wall St. Journal (subscription required), the answer is yes. If that proves to be true, the implications for UC are potentially huge.

Earlier this week, the WSJ reported that virtually all of the major manufacturers of Android phones are following Apple’s lead into the enterprise. The article ("Targets Shift in Phone Wars," Oct 10, 2011, p. B1) cites market research from IDC showing that the overall market for smartphones by business customers will grow by 54% from 2010 to 2011, to just under 50 million units. Of that total, RIM’s Blackberry is expected to remain in the lead, but it is projected to grow by only 2.8 million units (14.2%); by contrast, the iPhone will grow by nearly 10 million units (104%) and Android devices will grow by 4.8 million units (145%).

The rapid growth of iPhones in the enterprise can’t be explained just because of the "cool" factor, but also because it's actually easier for an IT department to support an iPhone than an Android. With iPhone, there's one platform, one operating system; Android, on the other hand, is produced by a slew of vendors, each trying to outdo the other. The very attributes--openness and choice--that have propelled Android to success in the consumer market are stumbling blocks in the business market. That may change if Android vendors seeking to entice business buyers offer more security and create management hooks and apps, but for now Apple has an important edge.

Most of the basic UC functions are already available on Blackberries, iPhones and Android devices. They give you voice, video and data on a single device, and are accessible whether you’re stationary or on the go. Yes, you may need to go through some hoops to get IM or presence capability, but it's not a huge burden.

And yes, there are interoperability issues, but those also abound with UC today, whether you're basing your architecture on an IP-PBX, or on desktop or application software. Interoperability in UC will remain a challenge for the foreseeable future, whether your frame of reference is mobile or fixed communications.

It's also true that there are an awful lot of folks who rely on desktop rather than mobile devices to do their job. As Eric Krapf noted in a recent post on No Jitter, "The IP-PBX market has been on the rebound; more lines being deployed means more devices connected to those lines. And as much as vendors talk about mobility strategies, single-number reach, and softphones, there's still no consensus replacement for the IP phone in enterprises today, leaving desk phones as the default choice when you have to put in an IP-PBX today." The arrival of more options for mobile handsets will ease the UC problem for only a subset of the workforce, albeit a growing one.

But despite such limitations, a serious entry by the smartphone industry into the enterprise is a good thing. Virtually every enterprise is either revising or creating a mobile strategy, and UC can begin to have a higher profile in those discussions. Moreover, if the smartphone vendors take the enterprise market seriously, they'll start packing more into their devices. More competition should lead to more functionality. While pricing may not drop in lockstep, because the carriers control long-term opex, at least there’s now a reason to hope that enterprises will get more bang for their buck.

Perhaps more importantly, if the system vendors can evolve their partnerships with the smartphone vendors; maybe, just maybe, they'll devote more energy to CEBP--Communications-Enabled Business Processes--the area where everyone agrees UC can have the biggest impact, but which remains seriously underdeveloped.