news The Commonwealth Bank of Australia has confirmed plans to substantially modify its high-profile softphone-based unified communications strategy recently implemented at its flagship Commonwealth Bank Place facility in Sydney, turning instead to a mass smartphone deployment as its replacement.
The bank’s unified communications strategy was unveiled in a Microsoft case study published in May 2011. The strategy saw the bank deploy the 2010 version of Microsoft’s Lync UC platform to some 32,000 staff across its operations, in one of the largest known rollouts of the UC software in Australia at the time. The idea was that staff, especially at the bank’s new high-tech Commonwealth Bank Place offices in Sydney’s Darling Harbour, would use a combination of desktop videoconferencing, IP telephony and unified communications features such as instant messaging to improve internal and customer communications; in a softphone-style headset rollout that would avoid the need for employees to pick up the traditional desk phone.
At the time, a senior executive with the bank said in the video that the bank’s Lync deployment saw the fastest take-up of any product it had ever deployed to staff. “What we found when it got it out there was that it spread like wildfire,” they said. “It was just intuitive and they picked it up. 60 percent of people were using it within 24 hours of that tool landing on their desktop. We put it across 32,000 people in a couple of weeks.”
However, Delimiter was told this week, last week the bank briefed senior staff on a decision to dump the hardware being used to power the softphones — Cisco and Plantronics branded gear — and shift to a mass smartphone deployment strategy at the bank, due to what was claimed to be flaky technology and increased costs. An unverified source claimed that mobile phones were to be issued to all staff at Commonwealth Bank Place who did not already have a BlackBerry handset or a permanent desk phone.
“As part of our continued planned set of experiments into productivity and bring your own device capabilities, the Commonwealth Bank has decided to use mobile phones as the preferred telephone solution for staff at Commonwealth Bank Place,” a spokesperson for CommBank said in a statement in response this afternoon. “Employees can continue to use Microsoft Lync for instant messaging.”
The spokesperson said the bank wouldn’t comment on negotiations with suppliers, but the same source said that two vendors were currently locked in a battle to land a contract to supply the smartphones.
Despite the fact that CommBank inked a $1 billion telecommunications services contract with Telstra in April 2009, the source said, Optus was currently the frontrunner in negotiations to supply the bank with smartphones, with the telco looking to supply close to 5,000 Nokia Lumia 800 handsets to the bank at no charge, should it secure the deal. Apple Australia is also allegedly having discussions with the bank, and is interested in providing a similar number of iPhone 4S handsets, at a similarly subsidised price.
Both Apple’s iOS and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 platform are likely to have their supporters within the bank, but for different reasons. Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 platform has in the past been positioned as a consumer platform, but it appears to be falling back into business favour due to its integration with the rest of Microsoft’s office productivity suite, including Lync but also Microsoft Outlook and Office.
Last week it was revealed that the Australian division of tyre manufacturer Bridgestone has picked Nokia’s Windows Phone7-based Lumia 800 smartphone as its platform of choice for its corporate smartphone fleet, with the Finnish company beating rival offerings from the likes of Research in Motion, Apple and Google to the work. And Telstra is currently positioning HTC’s Titan 4G handset launched over the past week as a business smartphone.
However, CommBank also has an existing heavy Apple presence, particularly at Commonwealth Bank Place, where the bank has deployed thousands of Apple MacBooks to staff. Commonwealth Bank CIO Michael Harte has expressed strong praise for Apple’s user interface in the past, and a number of the bank’s executives are believed to already be using their own iPhoens and iPads within the bank’s infrastructure — including access to certain company datastores, such as email.
Commbank’s move to shift away from its smartphone strategy throws a significant wrench in the movement towards softphone use in Australia. The bank’s deployment — along with a similar rollout of Microsoft’s Lync software at Qantas subsidiary Jetstar — had been one of the most significant and high-profile known implementations of a hardware-less UC strategy in Australia. Given that the bank’s underlying network and desktop infrastructure at Commonwealth Bank Place is believed to be extremely modern, given the fact that the facility was only constructed over the past few years, the rollback onto smartphones will call into question whether softphone strategies are practical in large Australian organisations at all.
There are several very striking things going on here which I really think Australian chief information officers and IT managers considering their future internal communications strategies need to pay attention to.
Firstly, if the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, with its huge IT budget, forward-thinking CIO, educated white collar worker staff base and brand new facilities can’t make a softphone-based UC strategy work well in its operations, then it is questionable whether other Australian organisations can. Those phones on desks may not be going away for a while yet — if they are at all.
Secondly, the bank’s shift to a mass workplace smartphone strategy is also very significant. Australian organisations have been debating such strategies for years, but typically this debate has been focused around the idea that employees would be issued with dual-mode smartphones which would place internal calls over the internal Wi-Fi network and through the company’s IP telephony system, roaming onto traditional mobile phone cell networks when outside the office or when out of Wi-Fi range.
It doesn’t look like CommBank is doing this here, however — it looks to me as if the bank is going purely for a 3G smartphone strategy, with all calls placed over the terrestrial cell network — and data, presumably, generally being piped over its internal Wi-Fi network. This is why the bank is talking to Optus. It would be fascinating if CommBank did go down this route, because if it does, it will essentially be saying that many employees no longer need desk phones — they can get by with company issued smartphones instead, connected to 3G mobile phone networks and internal Wi-Fi for data. This would represent a new evolution in our understanding of how large organisations do internal communications.
Of course, I could be completely wrong and CommBank could be intending to still pipe much of its smartphone voice traffic over its internal Wi-Fi network. But my gut tells me this isn’t the case.
We also need to look at the actions of the suppliers here. If it is true that both Optus/Nokia and Apple are offering steep discounts for mass purchases of their smartphones by CommBank, this indicates that smartphones are indeed becoming commodity items in the enterprise, and that what really matters to these vendors is having bulk scale in the enterprise, on their platform — not the profits of the moment. This could indicate that other Australian organisations could similarly get great deals on this kind of mass internal smartphone rollout.
Lastly, there is the fact that both Research in Motion and the Android vendors (HTC, Samsung, LG, Sony and so on) have been left completely out of this equation. As I wrote last week when Bridgestone picked Nokia, it appears as if Android is making very little headway in the Australian enterprise, compared with the mammoth growth it is seeing in consumer-land. Conversely, Microsoft, which is having trouble pushing its Windows Phone 7 platform to consumers, is seeing early interest from large Australian organisations.
There certainly is a lot here to analyse and discuss. I will be fascinated to see the direction in which enterprise communications goes in Australia over the next several years. So much of the pie is suddenly up for grabs, in this highly dynamic market. I suspect that in a few years, the way Australian organisations provide communications services to their employees may be very different from the way much of the industry had been predicting. The future of the enterprise is looking highly consumerised — and less and less like UC vendors like Cisco, Avaya and Microsoft would like it to.