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The Convergence and Evolution of Enterprise Calling

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Last March, at Enterprise Connect, three keynotes highlighted a new take on UCaaS Mobility. That’s not particularly newsworthy in itself, as mobility has been a reliable unified communications (UC) and unified communications as a service (UCaaS) feature since the beginning. However, this year the messaging changed from two complementary solutions to a single, all-in-one solution with significant implications.
There’s a common misperception that organizations no longer need an enterprise phone system. It’s not uncommon for someone to wave a smartphone at me, declaring this is the only phone they need. However, the market for enterprise UC and UCaaS solutions remains strong because they offer advanced calling features for individuals and departments. As a result, most organizations have two separate comms solutions and strategies, and that’s what’s changing.
While the mobile app is central to every UC and UCaaS offering, few providers openly admit that those apps don’t work particularly well. The problem isn’t within the app itself but with the network.
The modern smartphone connects to the world over two different provider services. Native smartphone services, such as voice and SMS, run over a different network than Internet applications. The native services receive a higher quality of service on the provider’s wireless and wired portions of the service. Internet services are subject to more contention and latency.
Applications such as UC and UCaaS run over-the-top (OTT) of the Internet connection, resulting with a reduced quality of experience compared to the native apps. That’s why low-quality UC/UCaaS conversations on a mobile device can sound better if you reconnect using the native dialer. Most OTT apps (such as email, social, and messaging) aren’t as sensitive to network performance as voice and video.
For the first time on the keynote stage, what we saw at Enterprise Connect from Cisco, Microsoft, and RingCentral—were UC-enabled smartphones as a native service. Essentially, the cellular smartphone is poised to become a native UCaaS endpoint. Cisco (Webex Go) and RingCentral (AT&T Office@Hand) demonstrated available and released products. Microsoft provided a preview of its plans for Microsoft Teams (Operator Connect Mobile) without a specified date.
For simplicity, I’ve grouped the evolution of UC/UCaaS and mobility into three stages. The first stage was largely accomplished with creative call forwarding. This worked best on incoming calls and was known as Find Me/Follow Me, Simultaneous Ring, and other names. Incoming calls would ‘forward’ sequentially or simultaneously to multiple devices (and/or locations). Outbound solutions usually involved calling an intermediary station that could place a call with a modified outbound caller-ID.
The second -- and current -- generation of UC/UCaaS mobility relies on smartphone apps. The smartphone, like a PC, runs a softphone client that connects to the UC/UCaaS servers over a wireless Internet connection. It works well when the location and connection receive a strong signal, but that’s not a safe assumption in mobile use cases. Also, the UC/UCaaS app isn’t as intuitive to many users as the native dialer. Smartphones are phones, and UC/UCaaS apps provide inherent secondary and overlapping services.
UCaaS mobile apps are popular, but not necessarily for calling. The apps provide access to organizational content such as messaging and a directory. They can allow a user to make and receive calls from their work number, but it’s not uncommon for users to prefer to reveal their direct number for better service.
In the preceding generation and the current one, the UC/UCaaS solution works together with the separate mobility service. In this upcoming next generation, the UC/UCaaS solution will combine with the mobility service into one solution. It is not a single vendor solution, the UCaaS providers and cellular providers are integrating their services. Today, Cisco and RingCentral (via AT&T) offer users the ability to create a UCaaS implementation with any mixture of desktop phones, desktop softphones, and cellular extensions. A single service for calling, messaging, meetings, and mobility.
The services can be combined with dual SIM phones which means that a single wireless endpoint can be used for personal and business calling — both with high quality, native wireless services. Neither requires an app to be installed on the smartphone, but the app completes the UCaaS experience with a full suite of services including calling, messaging, meetings, and directory.
This isn’t a technical breakthrough. For example, Verizon and BroadSoft (now Cisco) introduced Verizon OneTalk in 2016 with a similar capability. What’s new is the maturation of the concept into the mainstream. Verizon OneTalk was never particularly popular. Suddenly we have Cisco and RingCentral, two industry UCaaS leaders, working with a AT&T, a top-tier wireless provider in North America. Microsoft is working with Verizon to launch a similar capability. T-Mobile remains on the bench, but it has a strong go-to-market partnership (and equity stake) in Dialpad.
Cisco, Microsoft, and RingCentral shared a similar vision but are taking different routes to get there. Microsoft’s approach, as described, is built around Teams. Carrier services are obtained, managed, and assigned through the Teams administrative portal. It requires each carrier to become certified and approved to integrate with Teams.
RingCentral is developing a partner-centric model. Though powered by RingCentral, Office@Hand is AT&T’s brand, available only from it and its partners. RingCentral is working to create similar offers with other providers.
Cisco’s approach is channel agnostic in that you can obtain Webex Go from value-added resellers and providers. However, Webex essentially becomes the carrier itself. Cisco is aggregating wired and wireless services under the Webex brand. This approach allows, for example, Cisco to become a multinational organization’s global communications provider for calling, meetings, messaging, and mobility.
This next generation of UCaaS and mobility will be compelling. For the cellular providers, it represents a significant expansion of their total available market. For the UCaaS providers, it delivers a seamless, mobile, work-from-anywhere experience. Organizations can receive a highly flexible, single solution for all enterprise communications.
We’re heading toward a single, consolidated communications service. That’s a single service for calling, messaging, meetings, and mobility. The disruptive aspects of this convergence aren’t insignificant. There will be disruptive impacts providers and channels.
We’re in the early innings. Cisco and RingCentral are proceeding cautiously, and Microsoft hasn’t even launched yet. More solutions are expected. I mentioned T-Mobile and Dialpad, but there’s also Crexendo which established a partnership with Mavenir earlier this year. Also, Ericsson acquired Vonage earlier this year, and the company has stated its intent to capitalize on synergies between cellular and enterprise communications. Zoom and 8x8 remain wildcards. It’s unlikely that the cellular providers will be exclusive to just one UCaaS provider. AT&T is already working with Cisco and RingCentral.
I’ve been using the Cisco Webex solution for the past several months. My phone is configured with two SIMs, so it prompts me to select the preferred provider when placing a call. I can initiate calls from either the native dialer or the Webex app. I’ve used it in the U.S. and Europe with no discernible difference in quality. My only complaint is that phone service is bound to one device, so I have to manually designate the preferred device for calling.
Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.
This post is a summary of a deeper-dive research note on UCaaS Mobility 3.0.