Use of 'Over-the-Top' Communication
Apps in the Workplace
IndustryView | 2015
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has disrupted numerous delivery models for telecommunications services by allowing consumers to make and receive calls over the Internet. Apps for “over-the-top” (OTT) communications, a buzzword for reducing telecommunications service costs by eliminating traditional providers, are increasingly common.
OTT apps can be truly free (open-source), though many are available as “freemium” offerings, in which users receive basic functionality for free and pay only for advanced capabilities.
Software Advice surveyed workplace users of OTT apps to help businesses decide whether they should embrace open-source and freemium solutions, or seek out more robust paid communications solutions.
The goal of reducing communications expenses has been the primary driver behind residential and business VoIP adoption. Gartner reports that savings of up to 50 percent are possible by replacing traditional long-distance service with its Internet equivalent, SIP trunking (see our full explanation of this technology for more details).
VoIP has also begun replacing cellular voice services. The maturation of 3G, 4G and LTE data networks has made it much more feasible to transmit calls over wireless data networks versus cellular networks. Analysts predict that by 2017, one in seven subscribers to mobile voice services will use VoIP instead of cellular service.
Unsurprisingly, the savings offered by mobile VoIP have spurred the development of numerous apps for free text messaging and voice calling. Many communications apps aimed at consumers have always been available for free (e.g., many instant messaging clients, Webmail and Skype).
However, many enterprises prefer to use paid, business-class versions of communications apps (as demonstrated by the overwhelming success of Microsoft Lync, which has now been rebranded as Skype for Business).
Our data shows that employees are bringing the OTT apps they use at home to work, either at their employer’s request or for their own personal use. Such apps can offer substantial savings, though it’s important to remember that “over-the-top” isn’t always synonymous with “free.” Open-source solutions can require considerable time investments as well as basic services such as an Internet connection, whereas freemium offerings require users to pay for advanced features.
That said, businesses can still reduce communication budgets by eliminating and consolidating providers. By analyzing employee experiences with OTT apps, this report can help employers determine the best use cases for deploying such apps in the workplace.
Overall, our survey uncovered a high level of OTT usage: More than half of respondents (60 percent) say they use OTT apps at work. Indeed, the adoption rate for freemium and open-source OTT is slightly higher than that for paid apps among our sample.
Twenty-eight percent of our respondents report exclusive usage of OTT solutions at work, which indicates that a number of businesses are already exploring fully OTT communication systems. This finding tallies with recent reports that adoption rates for Google Apps (a freemium productivity suite) and Microsoft Office 365 are nearly even.
Digging deeper, we asked those respondents who are using OTT apps at work about their frequency of use. Apps for free text messaging (SMS) are especially popular among our sample, with 70 percent using these apps at work more than once a day. Instant messaging apps are also popular, with 55 percent using them multiple times a day.
OTT Web conferencing apps, on the other hand, are used far less: Only 4 percent of our sample use them more than once a day. Surprisingly, apps for free screen-sharing are more widely used than freemium video-calling apps, such as Skype. This discrepancy might reflect the high number of respondents in our sample (16 percent) who work in IT, since IT help desk agents commonly use screen-sharing to resolve trouble tickets (more on this later in the report).
The fact that so many workers already use these apps regularly suggests that businesses relying on text or instant messaging as primary forms of communication—such as those with highly distributed workforces—might want to consider going the OTT route. Small startups with limited budgets and numerous remote workers, in particular, are prime candidates for free or low-cost OTT text and IM solutions.
Kira Makagon, executive vice president of innovation at RingCentral (a provider of cloud-based communication services), explains that “OTT apps also help solve the challenges around mobile and distributed workforces by giving employees applications that are location, device and transport agnostic.”
The users we surveyed seem to rely on OTT technology not only for its price point, but also for its efficacy. They are particularly enamored of apps for free text and instant messaging: These apps are rated “extremely effective” by the highest percentages of respondents, and rated “not at all” or “minimally effective” by the lowest percentages.
Indeed, more respondents (29 percent) rate free IM solutions as “extremely effective” than any other app type in our survey—perhaps because OTT apps for instant messaging were already widely available to consumers by the late 1990s.
That said, paid communications clients such as Microsoft Lync offer benefits that may be unavailable or difficult to realize with freemium and open-source solutions—for example, integrations with other kinds of software, customization around specific business processes and federation with partner companies’ communication solutions.
Open-source communications systems, such as Asterisk (an open-source VoIP system), do offer some of these benefits, but businesses need extensive technical knowledge to effectively make use of them.
On the other hand, respondents rate apps for screen-sharing as particularly ineffective for reasons we’ll explore below. Employees who need to share screens on a daily basis (such as IT help desk staff) may need to use paid screen-sharing solutions to maximize their productivity.
When we asked about the advantages that OTT apps offer in the workplace aside from their price point (allowing respondents to choose all that apply), we noticed an interesting trend. Overwhelmingly, users choose familiarity with freemium and open-source OTT solutions in their personal life (the green bar in the below charts) as the top advantage for every kind of OTT app except Web conferencing. In particular, an impressive 62 percent of respondents who use OTT text messaging solutions at work choose this option.
Another top advantage, according to our users, is the high rate of adoption of OTT apps among other members of the general public. In particular, 34 percent of users of OTT video-calling apps say that widespread familiarity with the app they use is a major benefit. The reason behind this finding is clear: A video interaction in a business context is much more likely to be successful if both users are already familiar with the client, since time won’t be wasted as one party attempts to solve technical problems or learn the interface.
Conversely, while respondents may know how to use freemium and open-source OTT apps, relatively few say they offer advantages when it comes to what the apps can actually do. Functional breadth and depth (the orange bar in the above charts) ranks last for every kind of app we asked about, aside from Web conferencing and screen-sharing apps. This finding suggests that businesses looking for complex functionality from their communications apps should explore paid solutions for text, IM and voice and video calling, such as cloud-based VoIP phone systems.
Makagon observes that, “While freemium apps and services provide the basics—like instant messaging and texting—they lack the security, quality, flexibility and adaptability you receive when paying a business communications provider.”
Despite the aforementioned benefits, most of the respondents in our sample report there are some significant drawbacks associated with freemium and open-source OTT apps (choosing from a list we provided them).
Given the small number of respondents who choose “functional breadth and depth” as a benefit of freemium OTT apps, it should come as no surprise that respondents pick “limited functionality” (the green bar in the below charts) as the top drawback of freemium OTT text and instant messaging solutions.
Text and instant messaging apps are easily the most problem-free category of software in our survey. Thirty-six percent of our sample report that they haven’t had any problems using text messaging apps, whereas 37 percent say they have yet to encounter issues while using IM apps.
A different set of issues confronts users of voice calling, video calling and Web conferencing apps. The primary issue with all these apps is the quality of audio and video streams (the orange bar in the above charts). OTT video-calling apps present the most issues, with 36 percent of users reporting “poor video quality.”
Voice quality is also a problem for users of mobile VoIP apps—though it should be noted that these issues may actually be created by wireless networks, rather than by the software itself. (For a full explanation of how to pinpoint quality issues in a voice network, see this report.)
Interestingly, users of screen-sharing apps also encounter video quality problems at a fairly high rate (24 percent). Such issues can be particularly devastating in this context, since common uses of screen-sharing include watching presentations and reviewing software user interfaces for support purposes.
Other issues that users describe as significant disadvantages in free-form responses include the presence of ads in apps, as well as lack of effective support.
One user, for instance, comments that “free apps are great if you know, or are willing to figure out, how to fix any issues. Patience is a must.” Your workforce’s level of technological expertise should thus be a consideration when implementing a freemium or open-source OTT communications strategy.
Makagon notes that businesses using freemium offerings may also run into data migration and security issues:
Potential problems when using communication apps designed for consumers in the workplace include difficulty in managing apps, both for the employee and employer, as well as challenges in migrating data from consumer apps to company-approved business apps. These apps are often not built with enterprise-level security in mind and pose a major risk to rogue employees who use them instead of apps built with additional security and business functionality.Kira Makagon, RingCentral
Overall, the above charts suggest that businesses should consider choosing freemium solutions for their text and instant messaging needs before they consider freemium solutions for audio and video interactions, in which audio and video quality is a consideration of paramount importance. Business models in which phone calls and videoconferences are mission-critical may not be well-suited to freemium technologies, as savings in the communications budget could be offset by decreases in revenue, should the apps perform poorly.
The OTT trend has largely been driven by the soaring popularity of mobile devices over the past decade. However, our survey shows that desktops and laptops are still popular platforms for OTT in the workplace:
While text and instant messaging apps are much more popular when accessed on smartphones, office desktops are the platform of choice for screen-sharing and Web conferencing, whereas video-calling apps are most popular on laptops. Thus, if your workforce has extensive and frequent conferencing needs, you may want to explore a stand-alone, paid conferencing solution.
Makagon notes that “Web conferencing, video calling and voice calling are used for planned meetings and encounters, thus raising the bar for functionality and performance levels.”
Alternatively, a unified communications (UC) system with a desktop client may solve your collaboration headaches, as such clients frequently offer extensive conferencing capabilities. Unified communications is the push to ensure that all modes of workplace communication are interoperable (e.g., you can receive voicemails as emails) and can all be utilized from a single interface.
Whereas freemium OTT apps only handle one or two modes of communication (e.g., voice calling or IM), a UC app is a paid OTT solution that can generally handle all the modes of communication covered in this survey. This diverse functionality makes them appropriate for employees who have to collaborate on projects on a regular basis.
As Makagon explains,
Businesses will get more out of hosted PBX applications when they are integrated within UC suites because multiple devices and communication methods—such as phone systems, voice conferencing, online meetings and mobile applications—are integrated within one platform to optimize collaboration and communication from anywhere.Kira Makagon, RingCentral
The following charts display the average age of our respondents, as well as the industry segments and sizes of the organizations in which they work.
Overall, 87 percent of the OTT users in our sample are age 40 or younger. OTT solutions are particularly popular among employees in their late 20s and early 30s (the generation known as "millennials"). Thus, if your workforce includes a high percentage of millennials, your employees may already be relying on these apps more than you realize. By exploring available OTT solutions (or by surveying employees on the apps they are already using), you can enhance your employees’ overall productivity while reducing your communications budget.
We also find higher percentages of OTT users in some industries than in others. IT professionals, for instance, utilize OTT communications apps at a significantly higher rate than employees in other industries.
This suggests two things. One, that many currently available OTT solutions are reliable, since IT staff would certainly avoid them if they presented security or network-reliability issues. Secondly, IT professionals are an intrinsically tech-savvy demographic, and thus may be using OTT apps at a higher rate simply because they’re more aware of the trend. As knowledge of free communications apps spreads, their prevalence in the workplace is likely to increase overall.
Currently, many adopters of OTT technology work in large enterprises with over 1,000 employees (19 percent of our sample). Freemium and open-source technology offers the clearest business value for smaller organizations that don’t need the extensive functionality and scalability of enterprise UC systems. The fact that even enterprises are utilizing OTT technology at such a high rate is yet another indicator of the efficacy of OTT solutions.
Our survey shows that OTT solutions are already a major component of communications in the workplace, whether employers are aware that their employees are using such apps or not. Freemium and open-source apps for text and instant messaging are considerably more popular than other OTT apps, and users report they are also more effective. Since these apps are also free or extremely low-cost, many organizations could save on communications spending by choosing such solutions for employees’ text and instant messaging needs.
However, with the exception of rare cases, it won’t be possible to use free solutions for every single mode of communication your workforce uses. For instance, you can replace your desk phones with VoIP apps, but you’ll still need a SIP trunking provider if you want to connect calls to and from the traditional phone network, as SIP trunking replaces traditional long-distance service for VoIP users.
Services such as SIP trunking that are designed for use with paid OTT apps are frequently cheaper than their traditional equivalents, however. Additionally, you may be able to nearly eliminate expenses for a few commonly used communication channels.
On the other hand, freemium and open-source OTT solutions have their limits. Many of our respondents note a lack of functionality, as well as the quality issues that plague apps for free voice calling, video calling, Web conferencing and screen-sharing. Thus, such apps might not have a place in your organization’s communications strategy if you rely heavily on any of these modes of communication. However, a UC solution may offer the functionality, flexibility and integration capabilities your organization needs if freemium and open-source apps fall short.
To find the data in this report, we conducted a one-day online survey and gathered 371 responses. We screened our sample to include only respondents who use OTT apps to communicate in the workplace. Software Advice performed and funded this research independently.
Results are representative of our survey sample, not necessarily the population as a whole. Sources attributed and products referenced in this article may or may not represent client vendors of Software Advice, but vendor status is never used as a basis for selection. Expert commentary solely represents the views of the individual. Chart values are rounded to the nearest whole number.
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