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Where UC Product Planners Should be Looking: Apple

The entire UC industry seems to have come to the conclusion that mobile technology has become the driving force in shaping user expectations about technology and how it should work. While some chafe at Apple's overly controlling mindset, I would hold that since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, Apple has been the key creative force in defining those expectations and the compelling user experience that mobile devices have come to embody.

And while "Apple" and "UC" never seem to be mentioned in the same sentence (except possibly for those meaningless "mobile UC clients" nobody uses), Apple's got a lot of UC ideas in Yosemite, the next version of OS X, and iOS 8, both due out later this year.

As I have pointed out many times, the reason that users don't bother with mobile UC clients is that their smartphones already do most of what we call "UC," and do it in a fashion that more naturally appeals to users. You can pull up a contact and, with a single click, place a voice or video call or send an email or a text with pictures, videos, contact cards and just about anything else you can capture on the iPhone. With the next release, you'll be able to send a voice message as well as a text.

Apple is also updating the Spotlight search function. Like today, it will allow you to enter a topic and immediately retrieve every email, text and document related to it. It will also offer a wider variety of responses somewhat akin to Microsoft's Smart Search. Along with an improved Spotlight search function, the new OS will also bring Siri to the desktop.

In some ways, my smartphone already outperforms my desktop UC. While I can text from my desktop Lync client, that text doesn't show up on my Lync mobile client or vice versa. In an Apple Messages environment I can send a text message from my Mac desktop, MacBook laptop, my iPad or iPhone and the message stream can be seen on any of those devices as long as they're logged in to the same iCloud account.

One of the shortcomings of Messages has been sending a traditional SMS to a non-iPhone user. Sending or receiving SMS messages required a device with a cellular interface (and cellular number) like an iPhone. In the next iteration, as long as your iPhone is within Wi-Fi range of your Mac, you'll be able to send and receive SMS messages right from the desktop; that's part of the "tethering" capability described below. Traditional UC vendors like Avaya can integrate its texting function with SMS in a similar fashion, but that's an add-on option.

While it's not quite "presence", if you choose to share your location, other iOS users will be able to display a map that shows where you are; it's kind of like Glympse. It will also have the ability to name a group conversation and so you can track projects or long-term events.

The other great thing about sticking with the Apple ecosystem is that Apple devices "know their own kind." If I'm texting another Apple user, the message is automatically sent via Messages rather than SMS; if it goes via SMS (where I don't get the confirmation that the message was delivered or read), it shows up green rather than blue. Any Apple contacts automatically display the Facetime icon along with the phone icon so I know that video calling is available.

With my Office 365 Lync service, I have to know the other party is an Office 365 user and enter (or drag) their email address into the Lync client. And when Lync crashes every other day, all of my contacts see me as "unavailable" until I manually log back in.

Probably the coolest feature in Yosemite will be the ability to tether your desktop to your iPhone. This will allow you to take or reject cellular calls on your Mac (presumably with the ability to respond with a canned text message to other iPhones); you'll also see the phone's signal strength and battery charge on the Mac. It will also have a "handoff" feature that will allow you to see what you're doing on one of your devices on any other device. While that's not included in the current beta version, it will be interesting to see if it will do things like let you answer a call on the Mac and then pick it up on the iPhone

I seriously doubt that the new features will win over many die-hard PC fans, and this is yet another manifestation of Apple's closed ecosystem. However, if you buy into that particular "walled garden", you'll see that Apple is still pushing the envelope when it comes to an integrated (some might say "unified") product experience.

Of course there are regulated environments where the use of these consumer-oriented tools will be out of the question. The key thing to note is that Apple is still a decidedly consumer-oriented organization, and the focus is clearly on consumer and small business. But those consumer technologies are increasingly being brought into enterprises large and small, and with Yosemite, I think we're looking at the next big surge forward in what we can get in consumer versus enterprise technologies.

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