January 1, 2013

Will Windows Phone 8 Launch Lync Mobility?

Mobility is one area where UC continues to underwhelm. Where every UC vendor offers a mobile client, their adoption by end users has been miniscule. This situation is obviously embarrassing to the vendors who continue to tout the importance of mobility (who could argue with that?), while their offerings in the area languish. Could the latest release of Windows Phone 8 finally show us a mobile UC capacity that users will actually buy?

Let's start with why the current crop of mobile UC solutions has failed to entice users. Voice is clearly one of the key communications modes in UC (some might say the "core" communication mode), and mobile UC clients make a lousy phone call. I'm not talking about "voice quality", but rather the all-important user experience.

To make a business call, first the user must open the mobile client. Users will typically have access to the corporate directory, and in about half the cases that will also provide the colleague's presence status. Clicking the contact launches this bizarre process where the PBX places a call to the user's mobile device. In most cases the user has to manually answer the call, and then the PBX places a call to the party they are trying to reach.

Now, mobility is supposed to be about making things simple. This isn't simple. The device manufacturers spend a lot of time designing an appealing user interface that users cherish. Now we get that well designed experience for personal calls and this Rube Goldberg process for making business calls. The problem is that the APIs exposed for mobile app developers do not allow access to the phone's native dialer, the one thing you need to make a phone call. So with the obvious route to telephony blocked, the UC vendors have come up with this ingenious (though not necessarily "attractive") alternative.

The only UC vendor who might have a way out of this conundrum is Microsoft, because it actually controls one of the mobile operating systems, Windows Phone. The first phones using the latest version of that, Windows Phone 8, were introduced by Nokia in early September. Samsung and others are apparently planning offerings as well.

Microsoft also has a strategic partnership with Nokia based on CEO Stephen Elop's decision to adopt Windows Phone in place of its own Symbian operating system some 18 months ago. Clearly Windows Phone has not been blowing the doors off in the consumer market. Gartner pegs the worldwide Windows Phone market share at around 2% to Android's 56% share and Apple's 23%. IDC is predicting that Windows Phone market share will grow to 19.2% by 2016. Barring a truly cataclysmic event in the mobile device market, there's no way I could see that happening.

So Microsoft is going to start getting desperate. Given its' financial performance since making the Windows Phone decision, Nokia is "desperate" already. However as we all know, necessity can be the mother of invention.

If you take X-Box out of the mix, Microsoft has always been more of an enterprise than a consumer company. If they saw fit, Microsoft/Nokia could develop dual persona (i.e. business-personal) handsets with software allowing users to make Lync calls in as simple and straightforward a fashion as personal calls. The basic user interface for Windows Phone isn't bad. The interface used to be called "Metro," but Microsoft has since abandoned that name and has yet to come up with a new one. Control of the Windows Phone operating system is key, and this capability is not available to Cisco, Avaya, IBM, or anyone else in the UC market.

There is another factor that can buttress this option. The initial versions of Windows Phone, up to and including version 7.5 or "Mango", were consumer-focused to the point that they did not bother to include on-device encryption or hooks to support mobile device management (MDM) systems. That changed with Windows Phone 8 that supports encryption and a secure boot feature that will make it more difficult to sneak malware onto the device. They have also included some level of support for MDM systems, but the extent of that is still unclear.

Given the mobile industry's obsession with the consumer market over enterprise needs, I'm not predicting this is a "sure thing." But it would certainly be an interesting strategy for Microsoft/Nokia, particularly with the pending demise of BlackBerry.
If nothing else, Windows Phone 8 is adding some key security features to make it enterprise-ready. When it comes to a Lync-capable handset, desperation can be a great motivator!

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