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Is the desktop phone dead?

Which is best? A plastic IP telephony handset with some buttons and an LCD display screen, a soft phone client on a laptop with a Bluetooth headset, or a soft phone running on a small mobile device? Your answer to this question may depend on what age you are.

If you are a Baby Boomer, then you’re most likely to love your plastic handset. However, if you are part of Generation X or Y (that is, those born between the Sixties and the late Nineties), you are probably a soft phone fiend.

Not only does this suggest that Boomers are creatures of habit, it also shows that there has been a huge uptake in the use of soft phones in recent years. Generations X and Y have been exposed to technology at an earlier age, of course, but they have also benefited from some remarkable technical advances that may well see off IP telephony handsets before long.

According to Frost & Sullivan’s 2009 Worldwide Enterprise IP Telephony Endpoints Markets report, the number of soft phone clients shipped in 2008 was 2.4 million – more than double the total for the previous year. The analyst says that “this new generation of soft clients is swiftly penetrating the market, and in many cases, replacing their old counterparts.”

appearances can be deceptive

The basic appearance and use of the VoIP handset has changed little along the years, and it owes much more to underlying desktop computing power and the IP-PBX for its advanced features than its own design. Examples of this functionality range from feature access, software dashboards and click-to-dial functions, unified messaging and mobility. Soft phones are finding their home primarily on the PC in the short term, but in the mid-term they will increasingly move to a mobile device such as a Smartphone or similar handheld device.  

The key benefit of soft phones for businesses is that IP telephony systems cost much less to deploy company-wide if they do not include handset technology that can cost up to US$500 per unit. Soft phones are also easy to upgrade and their functionality increased – with the cost scaling accordingly – from a basic license right up to a sophisticated set up. There’s no need to go through the painful lifecycle costs of hard phones, including firmware upgrades, replacement through hardware failure and the constant worry of obsolescence. Hard phones are generally limited to 100Mbps LAN connectivity, and so when Gbps LAN support becomes the norm, the decision to replace handsets should be a no-brainer.

the soft machine

Soft phones have also become much more integrated with the desktop environment and all major PC software developers are adding phone, messaging and collaboration tools almost daily. Instead of an add-on client, soft phones are be placed at the heart of a complex communications landscape that allows video conferencing, instant messaging, SIP-based presence applications and true unified communications that follow you around, wherever you are. It’s also easier to see when colleagues are online and plan collaborative work time more productively.

Microsoft OCS and Skype are the two most popular soft phones in the business and consumer markets. But, Cisco and Avaya have advantages too because they already own a good portion of the corporate telephony market and can manage the transition to make it relatively seamless for businesses. With the advent of the cloud, calls can be routed to wherever the recipient is, or there are a number of VoIP solutions available that are hosted in the cloud and which don’t even need an IP-PBX to power them.

the missing factor: mobility

Right now, the relative reliability of a separate desk phone often trumps the lower cost and full integration of PC-based soft phones. However, that will change with the ‘killer application’ of mobility on a portable device, which will drive forward soft phone deployments at the expense of hard phones.  Imagine the feature and cost benefits of PC-based soft phones, combined with the universal appeal of a mobile always-with-me device. While the baby boomers may have settled into the work-in-a-cubicle routine, Gen Xers and Yers will not settle for being tied to something so limiting as a desk phone, or a desk for that matter. They will snap up all the capabilities in ever-smaller, more mobile packages. These multi-taskers want to be able to find people when they need to, communicate with them any way they want to, and instantly access their FaceBook or Twitter account from a single, mobile device.

Of course, soft phones are only as reliable as the PC system they run on and are also subject to specific voice processing performance requirements. Since the amount of available processing horsepower and RAM has doubled and become cheaper roughly in accordance with Moore’s Law for several years, this doesn’t normally present issues to any enterprise with modern PCs and not too much corporate software clutter. However, it still poses a challenge for very small mobile devices.

The PC will have a place for the foreseeable future mostly because of form factor and usability, but you can expect the knowledge worker of the future to demand a PC and a smart mobile device, not a PC and a desk phone. We probably will not get there until Baby Boomers transition to retirement and the comfortable feeling of a handset next to the ear fades away. Until it does, Boomers may wonder what all the soft phone fuss is about.

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  1. January 6, 2010 at 9:36 PM

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