Despite the innovation in VoIP and unified communication (UC) platforms, the IP phone itself hasn't kept up with the rest of the VoIP ecosystem. Expect 2008 to be the year the IP phone undergoes a facelift as vendors create more functionality in the phone, allowing users to create a more custom experience.
When companies have deployed VoIP, I've asked many of the users what types of things they do with the phone now that they did not do before. Most of the time, the answer is they do nothing differently. Users make calls, they hang up and then they make another call. Exciting stuff! The reason is that the majority of IP phones available today don't provide the users much more functionality than those of the past. They may have full-color screens and better sound, but they don't add that much more functionality to the end user.
Contrast that with the innovation in mobile phones with touch-screens, full keyboards, MP3 players, Web browsers and many other features, and it's clear that innovation with consumer mobile phones has far outpaced that of corporate telephony. This is one of the main reasons workers are relying more on their mobile phones and less on their desktop phones. For example, when I miss a call on my mobile phone, I can normally return it with a few clicks. When I miss a call on a corporate IP phone, there's a missed call log, but it's buried a few menus down and much more complicated than it should be. I can give you plenty of other examples where the functionality of my mobile device is just better than that of my desk phone, but the net result is that I have my desk phone forwarded to my mobile phone most of the time. The innovation with mobile phones has also allowed me to easily create a totally customized user experience. I know it's possible to do some customization with high-end IP phones, but it's normally pretty complicated.
I expect this to change over the next 12 to 24 months as VoIP manufacturers look to appeal to more tech-savvy users with a broader range of phones that are most customizable. There are already a few examples of this on the market today. Avaya's One-X phone, which looks and acts very much like a consumer device, allows users to load their own MP3s for personal ringtones and has a USB jack on the back and a very friendly user interface. Mitel's Navigator "phone" is designed to integrate into desktop environments.
So what does this mean to you, the buyer? Understand that the phone will be a key point of innovation over the next couple of years, and expect more from your vendors. Press your vendor of choice into showing you a long-term roadmap of where its IP phones are headed, and get aggressive with the trade-up value of older phones.
Larger, more colorful screens are nice, but your end users will want to create a customized experience like the other pieces of technology in their personal and professional lives.
Zeus Kerravala manages Yankee Group's infrastructure research and consulting. His areas of expertise involve working with customers to solve their business issues through the deployment of infrastructure technology solutions, including switching, routing, network management, voice solutions and VPNs.
This was first published in February 2008