Joanie Wexler @ Death to the Desk Phone?

February 18, 2013

Unlikely till Mobile UC Grows Seamless

There’s been talk for years about the imminent demise of corporate desk phones. They could simply fade into oblivion through attrition as users acquire smart phones. Or enterprises could make bold decisions to unplug them and immediately save money on telecom gear. Many residential phone users are giving up their landlines in favor of cellular phones; why not at work, too?

There are several issues that need resolving before desk phone annihilation can sweep enterprise telecom strategies. And a few niggling ones indicate that some wired phones are likely to remain indefinitely. For example, there are certain users who don’t really need to be mobile; their jobs require that they sit at a desk for most of their day (think admins, receptionists). For these folks, a tried-and-true wired phone that consistently works with high quality and reliable dial tone suits their needs best.

In addition, many of the enterprises I talk to express a desire to keep at least a few landlines around for the sake of backup in the case of power or cellular network outages.  In other words, wireless devices can be backups to landlines, and landlines can be backups to mobile phones. So perhaps, there will always be some wired phones kicking around.

Doing away with the majority of desk phones, however, is in the cards. But the biggest challenge to doing so, is the inability to create the same enterprise telephony and unified communications (UC) experience on mobile devices that exists on traditional desk phone-to-PBX setups.  Most PBX vendors transitioned into IP telephony a decade ago, and from there entered the UC business, focusing on wired network infrastructures. There are also specialty software UC vendors and UC cloud providers. Interoperability across platforms and features among all these players is far from nailed up. This situation causes mobile users running any variety of operating systems to either do unnatural acts to get features to work, or to just discard the apps in disgust.

Most enterprises have historically had an Avaya, Cisco, Mitel, Nortel, ShoreTel or other PBX maker delivering switched phone calls to user desks, and from user desks out over the WAN. These vendors have taken it upon themselves to extend their IP telephony service to include integrated message boxes, calendaring, contact info, presence (location-based) services, chat, screen sharing, conferencing and other capabilities that contribute to the ability for employees, colleagues, partners and customers to collaborate.

These solutions have worked pretty well inside the enterprise in the wired environment. That’s because each client/server ecosystem has generally been created by one vendor, that has optimized all the components to work together. There have also been some strides toward extending certain features from the PBX to both the corresponding desk phone, and a mobile phone, such that both phones ring (a function called “twinning”). This is handy when the user is away. Some also allow the user to push a button to transfer the call from a mobile to a desk phone and vice versa.

At issue, however, is the diversity of mobile devices and their mobile OSs that are springing up in bring-your-own-device (BYOD) enterprise environments. UC was initially engineered for the wired workplace, and employees find that they have to modify their behavior to use mobile telephony and UC services, and they don’t like it.

Users have decided to dig in their heels. If something doesn’t work intuitively without training, and within just a few seconds, users tend to abandon the capabilities altogether. For better or for worse, the attention span and patience to learn new techniques for doing the “same old things” is nearly nil.

Consider telephony in its most basic form. There’s the corporate wired plan. There are pools of shared voice minutes for cellular, usually with one carrier or, for international companies, with one carrier per country. Employees want to make phone calls the same way regardless of what plan is at work in the background, and whether they are on a landline or mobile phone.

Enter BYOD: the enterprise is no longer in control of the mobile operators in use, or the devices. Unsupported devices can completely derail enterprise hopes and plans for UC deployments. Just how is all this interoperability, and getting a simple automated dial plan to users supposed to happen?

It’s getting to be time for the public and private mobile networks to merge in a way that masks all that complexity from users. In the way that the old Ma Bell phone network didn’t differentiate among the devices that connected to it (admittedly, because it built them all and made them all consistent), let’s envision a world in which the mobile network is the hub where dial plans, UC capabilities and mobile apps reside and are able to work consistently, regardless of the peculiarities of each user’s device. The magic would be ecosystem cooperation at the back end.

Sounds like an impossible dream, but it is something that could be rolled out, enterprise by enterprise, via in-building cellular equipment used to deliver mobile WAN signal. If we could get back to a telephony/UC network that requires no special software client on individual devices to deliver functions, but instead hosts the plans, apps and features in the cloud that work the same everywhere, we’d be a big step ahead toward user acceptance and happiness – and the ability to ditch the majority of clunky old desk phones for good.

– Joanie Wexler, Guest Blogger