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Game of Phones: Desk handsets still rule office phones

The demise of desk phones has been predicted for years, but they stubbornly stick around. Why haven't alternatives to traditional office phones caught on?

It all started with a move. When Intrax Inc., a company that facilitates cultural exchange programs, prepared to relocate its San Francisco headquarters to another office elsewhere in the city, IT administrator Jon McAdams considered the costs of moving his existing telephony equipment to the new space and balked.

"Because we wanted to move very quickly, occupy our new space and maintain business continuity, we looked at the legacy stuff and we just said it was totally not cost-effective to start moving the old stuff around," McAdams says.

As many other IT managers have elected to do over the past several years, he decided to leave the desk phones behind entirely and deploy softphones to Intrax's 180 employees. The ShoreTel system McAdams selected is cloud-based, relieving him and his team from having to maintain an on-premises PBX. This approach also enabled him to deploy voice services faster, simplify setup for remote users, increase security by requiring a computer login to make calls, and adopt a more consistent block of phone numbers across the company.

"We've got people overseas that, of course, have the same [features available]. It's as if they're right here," McAdams says. "We can call them via their extensions even though they're in Europe or Singapore or places like that. So it gave us a lot more flexibility in terms of telephony in general."

Yet deployments like Intex's remain the exception, not the rule -- raising the question of why, with all the benefits of ditching traditional office phones, more businesses aren't cutting the cord. The reality is that despite the burgeoning availability and quality of software-based alternatives to telephony and chatter around BYOD, most employees are still making calls with the familiar handsets on their desks.

Employees continue to use desk phones more than any other type of telephony device or service, according to a report released in March by Software Advice, a market research firm acquired by Gartner last year. And as Pew Research Center reported last December, landline office phones still outrank cell phones in importance at work.

"People have been heralding the death of the desk phone for at least a decade," says Brian Riggs, principal analyst at Ovum. "It's something that has always had this stamp saying, ‘This seems on the way out,' and it just never quite happens."

Consider corporate culture

Despite the attractiveness of PC-based softphones and mobile clients for cellphones, traditional push-button office phones endure in business environments in the United States.

We looked at using soft clients and headsets, and there's just a combination of factors I think that go into that decision and figuring out what makes it right. Part of it is the demographics of our workforce.
Jarrod Bellchief information officer, the San Francisco Opera

Part of the reason for this, according to experts in the field, is a persistent corporate culture that prioritizes familiarity, security and reliability over the potential perks of what some IT departments still consider to be newfangled tech.

Though softphones and mobile technologies have matured significantly over the past several years -- consider Microsoft's rise as a legitimate player in enterprise voice -- many enterprises find that for a service as critical as voice, these options are still outside of their comfort zone. Businesses in industries like financial services and hospitality, where caution often overrides the cutting edge in terms of technology, have been less likely to dump their desk phones, according to Riggs.

"You're just going to come across certain companies that are going to be resistant to that kind of change," he says. "There's going to be cultural issues there where the IT department or the company itself is saying, ‘We don't need to do anything fancy with communications. All this UC stuff -- it's not really what our company is about. We're not going to invest in it, so everybody gets a desk phone.'"

For Jarrod Bell, chief information officer at the San Francisco Opera, company culture was a central factor in choosing to stick with desk handsets when his team upgraded the opera company's telephony system in July 2014.

"We looked at using soft clients and headsets, and there's just a combination of factors I think that go into that decision and figuring out what makes it right," Bell says. "Part of it is the demographics of our workforce and what their comfort level was in having the traditional handsets on the desk. [They were] the better choice for us, rather than getting really too advanced with headsets and stuff like that."

San Francisco Opera's new telephony equipment, based on ShoreTel's VoIP platform, also suits the company's goals around reliability. If a user's computer goes down, the telephone will still be operational.

It's a benefit that Bob Romano, a marketing director at Avaya, also notes when he contemplates the continually high numbers of desk phone sales.

"It's fascinating," Romano says. "The industry is still distributing a whole bunch of desk phones, I mean millions a quarter. But what we do see is a shift in the functionality of them."

The desk phone isn't really dying. You could say news of its demise may be slightly exaggerated, because definitely more and more people are using soft clients … but it doesn't mean they're fully replacing the desk phone.
Diane MeyersVoIP and IMS analyst, IHS Infonetics

More businesses are opting for office phones with added video capabilities, he explains. Sharing screens, video and content has and will become more expected, making voice just another component of the overall communication.

Even among employees who work more than half of their week remotely, less than a third have stopped using desk phones, according to the Software Advice report. An increasingly common alternative is using software to supplement physical office phones, rather than usurp them, according to Diane Myers, VoIP and IMS analyst at IHS Infonetics.

"The desk phone isn't really dying," she says. "You could say news of its demise may be slightly exaggerated, because definitely more and more people are using soft clients -- and not just clients on laptops but also tablets or smartphones -- but it doesn't mean they're fully replacing the desk phone. They're more augmenting the desk phone."

The softphone market has seen steady growth for several years now, though often in companies that continue to support the phones already on employees' desks, says Irwin Lazar, vice president and service director at Nemertes Research.

"We're seeing a pretty strong uptick over the past three years," Lazar says. "By the start of this year, roughly 16% of all endpoints were softphones, up from 13% a year ago and 11% a year before that."

Mobile marches on, but not yet dominates

While softphones are making strides, mobile options appear to be on the trajectory of leaps. Nemertes Research found that mobile clients for business communication represent about 11% of endpoints, up from 4% in 2014. More traditional companies like the San Francisco Opera might support the standard handsets on employees' desks, but with increasingly advanced unified communications (UC) technologies connecting them on their personal smartphones.

While Bell considers his company to be a traditional business where employees do most of their work on campus, there's no escaping the fact that mobility is beginning to shape his telephony strategy. He notes that roughly 15% of the workforce has opted to use ShoreTel's Mobility app. Another 15% to 20% of employees use the platform's call forwarding feature to their mobile phones. For employees who spend time outside the office raising money, Bell says the single-number-reach feature has been a notable plus.

"I don't necessarily think that PC-based softphones are going to be really what displaces [desk phones]," says Ovum's Riggs. "It's going to be mobile devices -- smartphones and various communications clients that run on them and just the device itself."

Finland, Norway and Sweden have been making this transition for a while, he explains, adding that these countries are generally further along in the replacement of desk phones by mobile devices.

"That's where you want to watch if you want to see what's happening, what the future's going to be like for the desk phone. I think all heads should turn to Scandinavia because they've always been very much further along and they continue to be," Riggs says.

Average number of work-related calls made or received

In the meantime, American businesses are becoming increasingly characterized by mixed environments. The use of more devices, and specifically more types of devices, make BYOD policies more essential and technological snares more complex.

"Having both softphones and desk phones deployed can complicate the lives of IT professionals," Riggs says. "It's much easier when there's just one single type of communication and end user point, regardless of whether it's hard or soft, regardless of whether it's from Microsoft or from a traditional telephony provider."

Yet as softphone and mobile options continue to proliferate and mature, and a generation raised on mobile devices filters into the workforce, companies with legacy office phones will likely continue to grapple with the issue of how to consolidate their communications technology.

"Kind of in these awkward teenage years, we're seeing softphones being used and deployed in conjunction with desk phones, being offered as freebies in some cases," Riggs says. "Whereas I think most forward-thinking IT departments realize that this is a temporary situation and that in the next five or 10 years, there are going to be in fact fewer and fewer desk phones."

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