news The Commonwealth Bank of Australia has revealed that it will standardise its mobile phone fleet on Apple’s iPhone platform, as it progresses plans to move away from its high-profile softphone-based unified communications strategy recently implemented at its flagship Commonwealth Bank Place facility in Sydney.
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.
However, in late May CommBank revealed plans to move away from the softphone strategy, turning instead to a mass smartphone deployment. At the time, it was considering deploying either Nokia Lumia or Apple iPhone handsets to staff.
This week, the bank’s executive general manager of technology and operations Keith Hunter issued a note to staff letting them know that Apple’s iPhone 4S handset would now become the preferred telephone option for employees, with the softphones being decommissioned. iPhones would be issues to staff in the bank’s Darling Park and Commonwealth Bank Place facilities who didn’t already have a desk phone or BlackBerry handset. Alternatively, staff will be able to use their own handset with a SIM card supplied by the bank.
Simultaneously, the bank has announced a deployment of technology to synch staff work email, calendar, contacts and tasks to iPhones and iPads (including personal devices), as long as staff have manager approval.
“As part of its continued program with mobility, productivity and ‘bring your own device’ capabilities, the Commonwealth Bank has decided to use Apple’s iPhone 4, in addition to its current fleet of Blackberries as the preferred mobile telephony solution at its Commonwealth Bank Place location,” the bank said in a statement this afternoon. “In addition, as a further example the Group’s ongoing program with ‘bring you own device’ capabilities, it will rollout a ‘mymobilesync’ solution as an option for employees who want their secure work email on their own iPhone and iPad device.”
“The choice to ‘go mobile’, reflects our people’s desire for enhanced mobility and flexibility. It will it add to their productivity and their ability to respond to customer enquiries regardless of their location. Together, these initiatives highlight the Group’s ongoing focus on technology innovation and complement the many other services which bring a range of communications options to its people in their workplace.”
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 softphone 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.
I’m not surprised at all that the Commonwealth Bank has chosen to standardise on Apple’s iPhone. From a manageability perspective, it is possible that Nokia’s Lumia phones would be a better fit for the bank than the iPhone – due to Microsoft’s strong integration of its Windows Phone 7 – but realistically I don’t believe this will be a huge issue for the bank. There are enough Apple and third-party tools out there for managing iPhones and iPads in the enterprise that it shouldn’t be a problem.
In addition, there is pretty much no doubt that the bank’s staff would be happier with iPhones than with Nokia models. At this point, alongside Android, Apple’s iOS platform is the smartphone operating system which most users will be most comfortable with. I am sure that CommBank will need to provide a few additional extras to make the iPhones suitable for daily office use – perhaps headsets are on offer to staff?
One thing I am surprised by is that the bank didn’t wait a little and standardise on the iPhone 5 model. The price should not have been that different, and it makes sense to deploy the latest model possible in this kind of move — to ensure the long-term future of the platform. Perhaps CommBank is pursuing a N-1 strategy. Perhaps Apple is trying to dump iPhone 4S stock and is giving the bank a nice deal on the model. Or, perhaps CommBank just believes the iPhone 4S is solid enough to last in the long-term, and that the iPhone 5 doesn’t offer enough immediate benefits. In any case, I’m sure newer model iPhones will be made available to staff down the track.
The bank’s move to allow staff to sync their email, calendars and some other data with staff-owned devices is also pretty much a no-brainer. Most of this data isn’t going to be that sensitive, and iOS is a pretty secure platform at this point. The bank will really win a great deal of approval from its staff for opening the kimono a little this way and letting staff get access to their work data from their personal devices.
In terms of CommBank’s broader shift away from its softphone strategy, these comments, which I write back in May, still apply:
“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.”