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Do enterprises want to dump the desk phone for a softphone?

Plenty of vendors tell UC managers that it's time to replace wired desk phones with softphone applications on laptops or UC apps on mobile devices. But is anyone really doing it?

Plenty of vendors tell unified communications managers that it's time to throw their wired desk phones in the trash, whether it's Microsoft and IBM pushing softphone applications on laptops or mobile carriers advocating smartphones. Ditching the desk phone is tempting, but is anyone really doing it?

"Although our desktops are stable, I don't think we're ready to take the leap to having both voice and data on one device, except in specific applications like road warriors," said Steve Brescia, manager of ITS enterprise architecture for New Jersey-based American Water.

There are tangible benefits to abandoning desk phones and using a mix of desktop and mobile UC clients. A desk phone is a relatively pricy piece of hardware that requires a company to pull additional cables to cubicles, and desk phones come with a certain amount of operational overhead for support and maintenance. A softphone deployment could be a cost-effective alternative. Desktop administrators can quickly install a VoIP client on users' computers and equip them with a relatively cheap and easy to use headset that they can plug in to a USB port. .Software clients are also very portable, enabling a user with a laptop or smartphone to stay connected anywhere on the enterprise network. Vendors that generate reliable revenue from desk phone sales, such as Cisco Systems and Avaya, may not advocate a transition to  softphones, but some unified communications vendors have a vested interest in pushing toward softphones and mobile clients. It's important to consider the messenger when discussing any kind of transition from desk phones.

“There are two types of companies that think the desk phone’s days are numbered: software-centric UC solution developers -- as opposed to PBX-centric ones -- and mobile operators,” said Brian Riggs, research director for enterprise communications at Current Analysis.

Software-centric UC vendors claim their UC soft clients are satisfactory replacements for desk phones, he said. Mobile operators, of course, would push enterprises to a smartphone solution, with the mobile device connecting to a Cloud-based UC offering.

Despite the marketing and the promises of savings, the majority of enterprises are sticking with the desk phone.

“Most of the telephony vendors saw healthy double-digit growth in IP desktop devices in 2010, and the market is expected to grow considerably within the coming years,” said Alaa Saayed, industry analyst for unified communications at Frost & Sullivan. There are indications that softphone clients are actually gaining traction, Saayed said. But IP desk phones will be the major endpoint for enterprise unified communications for some time to come, he said.

The problem with softphones

The end users are the major stumbling block for UC managers who want to transition to softphones. While the cost savings and benefits of an all-software solution may appeal to IT and finance departments, many users resist dumping the desk phone into the trash.  

“We've heard one enterprise say that while 70% of managers wanted to consolidate devices, 70% of end users didn't,” Saayed said.

For many users, desk phones are simply the easiest and quickest way to make and receive calls. A user can make and receive calls on a desk phone while his laptop is still booting up in the morning. The desk phone is also a familiar device to most users, with a proven form factor that goes back decades. Likewise, while mobile UC clients are gaining traction, Saayed believes that the reality for many enterprises does not support an across the board mobile UC client approach. “Eighty percent of worldwide office workers are desk-bound the majority of the time,” said Saayed. So converting to mobile UC clients on smartphones is in many cases impractical.

The future of the desk phone

Rather than disappearing, the enterprise desk phone is changing roles, Riggs said. Some unified communications vendors, such as Aastra and Cisco, are offering desk phones that also support native video conferencing, while others are seeing tablets like the iPad as a new type of endpoint device that supplements the laptop and the desk phone.

Many UC vendors also like to showcase feature integration between desk phones and desktop-based laptop functionality, whereby users can click to call from their computers and run the call through a desk phone.

“More companies will support mixed environments; where some users have UC clients only, others have cell phones only, and others traditional desk phones only,” said Riggs. These mixed environments will be particularly challenging to the UC team because the team will have to support multiple applications on multiple devices for different user groups.  These mixed environments will require careful planning and a good understanding of the communications needs of different types of workers.

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