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Do desk phones matter in the UC everything, IP everywhere era?

When it comes to unified communications, does the endpoint really matter? Particularly as servers and software handle more and more of unified communication's intelligence and users become more and more likely to switch fluidly between modes of communication, the decision as to which endpoints to purchase -- the desk phones, the wireless headsets, the cellular devices -- may be becoming more tactical and less strategic every day.

When it comes to unified communications, does the endpoint really matter?

As servers and software handle more and more of the intelligence in unified communications and workers get used to shifting fluidly among different modes of communication, the choice of which endpoints to purchase -- the desk phones, the wireless headsets, the cellular devices -- may be becoming more tactical and less strategic every day.

It might even mean that the venerable enterprise deskphone, typically priced at more than $300, could become more affordable or even disappear completely as softphones become a more natural and more integrated part of daily business.

"Even though desk phones are still in use, and we're obviously seeing them sold, we're going to see a decline in desk phones actually shipped, and the functionality put there," said Vanessa Alvarez, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan's unified communications (UC) practice. "The hardware is becoming commoditized."

The commoditization could arrive sooner than many people expect: Alvarez said she thinks the desk phone market will start to decline in the next 18 to 24 months, an incredibly short span of time for a line of devices that typically sit on desks for many years.

It also makes the current wave of ultra-high-end desk phones a bit puzzling.

Snom technology, for example, recently introduced the snom 870, which features a full-color touch-screen that can make setting up conference calls, for instance, a simple matter of tapping on participants.

But in many cases, these are the same features and challenges that UC vendors have been tackling with desktop and mobile software.

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Check the results of our Product Leadership Awards 2009 in the IP phones category to see who won the gold, silver and bronze awards.

"I really can't see the use of that," Alvarez said. "There are much more cost-effective technologies that can effectively get rid of a phone."

There are some, however, who feel that the death of the faithful desk phone has been greatly exaggerated.

Amy Huson, director of unified communications at headset manufacturer Plantronics, said the rush to desktop-based UC could actually stymie successful deployments.

"Some of the earliest UC technology providers did have the idea that the system is the focal point, and the endpoint is an afterthought," Huson said. "They found that the power of the telephony software was not actually able to come through on the voice component if you didn't have a well-defined endpoint."

Even the slickest conferencing features -- integrated presence and click-to-connect, for example -- will be undermined if a sales call is crackling, jittery or, worst of all, drops off altogether as a result of a network hiccup.

"They found customers were rejecting the whole concept of UC as opposed to getting the importance from it [when vendors ignored voice quality]," Huson said.

As a result, she said, while UC adoption is widespread, it usually separates out presence, IM, and other IP-centric features from the voice components.

While Alvarez questions UC strategies that duplicate too much functionality onto the desktop device, Huson argues that in many cases there are sound reasons to do so.

"If the person is in a controlled situation ... and everything goes according to plan, the software works fine," Huson said. "But it's when the audio goes off, or things go on mute, or something else goes wrong that people go toward the device."

She said it was a natural impulse to change the volume, hang up and mute calls using the device itself rather than reaching for a mouse, and that neglecting these features can hurt adoption by employees.

Huson and Alvarez agree that user roles will determine what role devices will play in the enterprise and what functionality they will need.

"Maybe you have a group that doesn't really use desk phones -- maybe consultants who have a lower-end desk phone [when in the office]," Alvarez said.

To fill this lower-end niche, phone manufacturers Toshiba, Spectrum and Aastra have been aggressive on both pricing and compatibility with higher-end UC vendors. Although they may lack some of the more advanced features of a Cisco or Avaya phone, these low-end phones get the job done at a fraction of the cost for employees who have minimal feature requirements.

Huson said Plantronics had a similar internal strategy, with prices ranging from $50 for headsets for remote workers with minimal needs to $3,000 for room-based call conferencing systems.

"Because of all the different use-case scenarios, we're seeing different price points emerging," she said. "There's certainly an interest in many organizations in what's good enough to get the job done but maybe not comfortable enough to wear all day, for example."

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