Unified Communications Hits the Road

As unified communications continues to take root within the desktop landscape, it’s also sprouting on the mobile device environment, thanks to worker mobility demands and the promise of greater productivity that collaboration provides to enterprises.

Once in play on handsets, unified communications (UC) could very likely change how workers work and businesses operate. True seamless mobile UC will let users use any handset and move from one network, such as Wi-Fi, to another, such as a cellular service, without IT having to manually reset a IP PBX all while accessing needed collaboration tools.

Those tools range from chat and instant messaging, to VoIP technology and audio and video conferencing, and emerging “presence” applications that let colleagues know with just a glance if someone is available and reachable with one mouse click.

“The holy grail of mobile UC will be when you can seamlessly access all your communications applications within a click,” Vanessa Alvarez, an analyst in Yankee Group’s Enterprise Research Group, told InternetNews.com.

“While mobile UC is still in a nascent stage, I believe it will be mobile UC that will provide enterprises with that true [UC] ROI,” added Alvarez.

According to Yankee Group’s 2007 Wireless survey about 40 percent of today’s workforce feature mobile workers. While that aspect is propelling mobile UC advancements and adoption, mobile UC is not yet a primary IT focus.

“Enterprises are just wrapping their arms around UC, so while they do show interest I believe enterprises are not quite there yet,” Alvarez said.

One reason is the concern already voiced about interoperability and product integration with desktop UC.

That challenge looms even larger given the various mobile devices in play.

While some UC products support standards and integration with third-party products, others only operate on their own IP-PBX or presence environments. That’s why UC players are partnering when needed bits of UC technology aren’t part of their product forte.

At the same time better UC solution, that hurdle the integration and interoperability barriers, are hitting the market.

One of the latest is WebMessenger’s Mobile for Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS) for Research in Motion’s (RIM) BlackBerry. The vendor also provides UC clients for other mobile platforms including Palm, Pocket PC, Symbian and Windows Mobile.

“We’re agnostic and can work in whatever a corporate UC environment needs,” Joe Naylor, WebMessenger president, told InternetNews.com.

The WebMessenger server, which sits behind a firewall, is synched up with Active Directory and the BlackBerry Enterprise Server to provide mobile users desktop UC functionality.

WebMessenger can be deployed by itself or in conjunction with other WebMessenger solutions to federate leading IM networks, connect with enterprise voice IP PBX platforms, extend persistent group chat solutions and leverage existing auditing and compliance tracking solutions.

It’s those collaboration aspects that will foster true mobile UC environments, according to pundits.

“The user has to be one click away from any form of communications application he or she would like to use,” Alvarez explained, adding that “when you’re on the go, whether it be driving or walking, it’s hard to look at a screen and the road at once.”

The big hurdle ahead for UC vendors is ensuring that a mobile UC interface reflects what’s on a user’s UC desktop, even if enterprise UC environments are disparate.

“One of the challenges now is providing that ‘experience’ users get with desktop UC,” Brent Kelly, an analyst with Wainhouse Research, told InternetNews.com.

Another issues the lack of a true “killer” application in UC, said another pundit.

“In the 1980s it was the spreadsheet. In the 90s it was the browser. Now we’re waiting to see the killer application for UC which will provide the benefit to make the technology take hold,” Carmi Levy, senior vice president of strategic consulting at AR Communications, told InternetNews.com.

But such issues will likely be solved within the next two years, according to pundits, as mobile UC adoption grows and brand-name players zoom in on technology.

“We will also see new players coming from the mobile world and enter this competitive landscape,” said Alvarez. “Right now, mobile UC is fair game for any vendor to take the lead.”

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