VoiceCon 2009: Cutting The Cord On Enterprise Phones

Experts debate the transitioning role of the desktop phone and whether smartphones, Unified Communications, and soft phones can fulfill enterprise voice needs.

Marin Perez, Contributor

November 2, 2009

4 Min Read

Voice still remains the most important business communication tool, but with all the innovations and advancements in smartphones, Unified Communications, and PC-based soft phones, is it time for enterprises to realistically think about completely ditching their traditional desktop phones?

During a panel Monday at VoiceCon San Francisco 2009, industry experts discussed the transitioning role of the desktop phone on the modern workforce, and whether companies can continue to justify their expenditures for this hardware. While the panelists disagreed on multiple topics, there was a consensus that desktop phone shipments will decline but it's far too early to fully dig the traditional phone's grave.

"I think the phone hasn't evolved the same way our other communications technology has," said Dave Michels, a telecommunications blogger with No Jitter and Pin Drop Soup. "The value proposition for a top-of-the-line VoIP phone without video is pretty much the same as it was 30 years ago."

Michels said landline phones are generally only used to make, receive, and transfer calls, and it is becoming harder to justify large purchases when there are other technologies that can achieve those goals, as well as provide mobility, applications, and other value-added services for similar costs. Additionally, Michels said a landline terminal also effectively chain workers to a desk and this doesn't jibe with an increasingly mobile workforce that wants flexibility and adaptability.

Ten years ago, employees would receive a business call on their cell phones, walk into the office, and then call the client back from the landline due to voice quality issues. But Michels said expectations and usage cases have changed, and end-users and clients now expect to be able to finish their conversations without having to wait to be called back from a landline. This could create a lot of opportunities for cellular providers to begin offering hosted PBX services, or offerings like Research In Motion's BlackBerry Mobile Voice System, Michels said.

Allan Sulkin, president of TEQConsult Group, disagreed with some of Michels points, citing the spotty cellular coverage many enterprises get, the issues with fixed-mobile convergence offerings, and the battery life issues with heavy cell phone usage.

Sulkin said many desktop phones have advanced features such as touchscreens, Web browsers, and applications, but many companies are not aware of these capabilities. He did agree that overall shipments of desktop phones are bound to drop, and Sulkin estimated the traditional phone will cease to be the primary enterprise communication device by 2020.

Microsoft could play a large role in shoving the desktop phone into the grave, Sulkin said, as the company is making a major push for soft phones that work with its Unified Communications software, which combines enterprise voice, video, instant messaging, and presence. Microsoft's heft, brand name, and marketing dollars could have a similar impact on the soft phone market that Cisco had on the IP telephony segment.

While overall desktop phone shipments may indeed dip, Avaya's Steve Hardy said the company still sees a strong market for this class of device, and it is still pouring research and development dollars into the market. Multiple surveys have found nearly 70% of workers don't want to give up their desktop phones either, Hardy said.

"The need for very high-quality, always-on capabilities is never going to go away," said Hardy, who is the company's senior director of product marketing.

Hardy said some higher-end hospitality consumer-facing businesses are also looking at high-end phones with touchscreen capabilities as potential revenue-generators, which could dramatically change the budgeting and cost expectations. Traditional desktop phones may also seemingly have a high upfront capital expenditure, but the total cost of ownership can drop dramatically when enterprises factor in that these devices will often be used for eight to 10 years.

IT departments may also not quite be ready to get rid of the traditional phone if the audience reaction was any indication. The panel ended with an audience member describing how he was in charge of over 1,200 phones, and the company spent 80% of its time managing their soft phones because the devices they "are just not ready" for enterprise-grade voice usage with minimal maintenance.

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