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We have had a rush of exciting news regarding new and better high-speed wireless offerings, all of which hold the promise of delivering all forms of UC&C capabilities (including video) to the growing population of mobile workers. Those options take advantage of both cellular and Wi-Fi technologies, with the latter offering free wireless service both inside and outside of the office. However UC&C providers still face the challenge of actually making their offerings relevant in this increasingly mobile environment, and finally delivering a mobile capability that users actually adopt and can provide some meaningful product differentiation.
First, let’s take a look at what’s happening in the cellular space. Earlier this month Verizon Wireless launched its 4G LTE service in 34 new markets, expanded service in 38 others, and now offers the service in 371 markets across the country covering 75% of the US population. PC Magazine did a comprehensive comparison of 4G performance last year and found Verizon’s downstream data rates averaging around 10 Mbps and peaking at over 35 Mbps – that’s faster than a lot of people’s home DSL service.
Both Verizon and AT&T have gotten around to offering shared data plans so users no longer have to take out separate plans for their smartphone and their tablet. Unfortunately with the different rules and break points, it’s hard to get a clear picture of which plan is right for which users. In the meantime, beleaguered T-Mobile USA is joining Sprint in offering unlimited data service for $20 per month on top of a $49.99 per month voice plan. The earlier T-Mobile unlimited plan cost $74.99 per month and offered unlimited voice and texting but a maximum of five gigabytes of data. Of course, T-Mobile’s service is using the earlier HSPA (which somehow changed from being “3G” to “4G” along the way) where Sprint is rolling out LTE.
Just to keep things hopping, MVNO MetroPCS is now offering unlimited 4G for $55 per month. One thing in MetroPCS’ favor is they are the undisputed king of Wi-Fi offloading. While AT&T was the first national carrier to embrace Wi-Fi offloading, particularly to its own hot spot network, MetroPCS is taking this to the next level with the help of a company called Devicescape. Devicescape has put together what they call the Curated Virtual Network (CVN) that boasts over 9 million access points worldwide. The key is, they don’t own them! Rather, they have developed smartphone software that looks for available open Wi-Fi networks their users can jump onto; rather than “war driving” the streets, they are building the network by crowdsourcing.
If you think “beggars can’t be choosers,” Devicescape would argue that. The website claims that to make it into the CVN, a hot spot has to pass tests for quality, availability, speed, and reliability. Fewer than 10% of Wi-Fi hotspots they locate make it into the network. One of Devicescape’s other customers, Republic Wireless, made the news last year when it announced plans to offer unlimited voice, text and data for $19 per month. Devicescape’s software can automatically get users onto open hot spots even if they have a launching page and require clicking an “I Accept” box.
If there’s not enough free Wi-Fi to go around, the cable companies are now getting into the act. Many of the larger cablecos including Cox, Time Warner, Comcast, Bright House, and Cablevision operate extensive public Wi-Fi networks they offer for free to their cable modem customers. In May they announced they were forming an organization called CableWiFi where a subscriber on any of those services would get free access to any of the others when they were traveling. They launched with a network of 50,000 hot spots nationwide and it’s still growing.
We are also seeing a synergy between UC&C in enterprise WLANs. Wi-Fi switch manufacturer Aruba Networks and their Mobile Virtual Enterprise (MOVETM) architecture has qualified for Microsoft’s Lync Wi-Fi compliance program. Among the key features Aruba has incorporated is the ability to “fingerprint” Wi-Fi dataflows and identify them as voice, data, or video and apply the appropriate policies and quality of service (QoS) setting. That’s pretty tricky particularly when you consider that the Lync connections are encrypted, and Aruba claims it can deliver 75% better performance than its competitors in a Lync environment.
It seems the only ones who are not getting a benefit out of all of this activity on the wireless front are the UC&C vendors. They have been touting their mobile UC&C clients for upwards of five years, and still the take rate among actual users is embarrassingly low. What’s even more embarrassing is that the vendors apparently can’t even tell how low! When I query the vendors on user acceptance, if I get anything more than pure obfuscation, they’ll tell me meaningless stuff like the number of licenses sold or the number of downloads.
The problem with that is that with packaged pricing options like Cisco’s Unified Workspace Licensing (CUWL), the mobile client is included; what the heck, if you can’t “sell” it, you might as well just give it away. From there, the user would have to download it, but most of the apps I download are used once and dumped. Are the users actually using it? Well, they can’t tell because they haven’t included any analytics in the products. By the way, any half-way successful mobile app developer lives and dies by analytics that allow them to see not only that the app is being used, but what features or functions are being accessed. Without that type of visibility, you’re not getting out of the “bush leagues.”
I have written about the challenge to mobile UC&C adoption many times in the past. Users expect an integrated experience where they can use the native features and capabilities of the mobile device whether they are making a business call or a personal call. Unfortunately, the APIs that are exposed in the different mobile ecosystems (e.g. Apple iOS, Android, Windows Phone, etc.) don’t allow that with the result that the mobile UC&C client has its own dialer and contacts and requires a different process for making business calls, which are then “looped through” the IP PBX tying up two trunks for the duration of the mobile call; the configuration we call “hairpinning.” Really the only mobile capability the UC&C users have found of valuable is “call forwarding,” either in the traditional sense where the user manually forwards their desk number to the mobile, or the newer simultaneous ring or preferred number features.
However, with services like Republic Wireless, whether the call is going out on Wi-Fi or the cellular network, the user does exactly the same thing. They do have an indication that the call is on Wi-Fi, but if the Wi-Fi option is available it all happens seamlessly. How come they can do stuff like this, but the UC&C vendors can’t? I realize the technical challenges are more daunting, but at the end of the day, if they can’t deliver a satisfactory user experience (i.e. arguably the most important factor in the success of a mobile app), why don’t they just give up? Of course they can’t because “mobility” is so critically important you have to have it in your sales pitch, even if you don’t have anything meaningful to sell.
Despite the leaps in mobile networks and device functionality, the UC&C community is still on the outside looking in. The mobile UC&C capabilities we do get today like click-to-dial or text from an email, click-to-join a meeting, and so on are primarily a function of the native software in the mobile device and not anything the UC&C vendors are providing. Fortunately for the UC&C vendors, they are universally bad at mobility, but this still represents a significant Achilles heel.
With the move to social networking and collaborative workspaces, the UC&C vendors are increasingly vulnerable to encroachment from adjacent consumer-oriented solutions that do the mobile job way better. A word to the wise: mobility is happening, but it’s happening without the UC&C community. You might want to do something about that before the train passes you by.
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