Problem solve Get help with specific problems with your technologies, process and projects.

Pulling the plug on desk phones and PBX phone systems

Desk phones and PBX phone systems have been the de facto standard for years. Not sure if you’re ready to let go? Ask yourself these questions and find out.

Editor’s note: There’s no question the days of the desk phone and PBX phone systems are numbered, but are enterprises...

prepared to pull the plug? If not, enterprise businesses can still augment their traditional PBX phone systems with the latest trends in voice, mobile and unified communications (UC) technologies. To realize the full benefits of multimodal communications, IT departments and end users need to let go of the traditional telephony paradigm.

Which phone are you using these days? What phone will you be using in the future, especially when your phone system reaches end of life?

A few ideas actually need to be unpacked here, and that speaks to how much has changed around how, when and where we communicate in the workplace. It wasn’t that long ago that personal calls weren’t allowed at work. Before cell phones, you either had to get permission to make a personal call, or leave the office and find a pay phone. Workplace policies are far more relaxed now, and with all of us using mobile phones, it’s futile for IT departments to try to enforce these kinds of rules. My point is that mobile phones untethered us from the desk phone, and personal use situations are just the starting point.

Though the PBX has long been the locus of communication, it now has to compete with alternative ways of making phone calls and various unified communication components like email, text, IM and video. The operative word here is “compete.” Email started the shift away from the desk phone to the desktop, ushering in today’s use of multitude of communications tools—whether used in isolation or mixed together.

PBX phone systems and desk phones soldier on

The PBX has long been the gold standard for quality and reliability, for which businesses have paid a premium. This speaks to the primacy of telephony—and voice—for getting things done in the workplace.

Desk phones live on despite the explosion in disruptive communications options over the past two to three years—including, tablets, mobile broadband, Web-based services like Skype and Google Voice, soft phones, cloud/hosted communications services social media and the touchpad revolution started by the iPhone. Old habits die hard  both for employees who are comfortable with desk phones, and IT managers who like the dependability of PBX systems and its long lifespan.

These new communication modes bring more choices and efficiencies to communications, and while this is welcome—especially among end users—it also brings tension and challenges for IT. New communication modes present an either/or scenario (a.k.a. competition) for the PBX. If the PBX is seen as diminishing the role of desk phones, business decision makers will start questioning the value of PBXs, especially with the high costs around it.

The Y2K scare in 1999 prompted a hefty bump in PBX purchases and upgrades to mitigate potential problems that never materialized. Although a PBX phone system’s lifespan can top out around seven years, most PBX phone systems can easily have a 10-15 year lifespan.

This brings me to the big question—if you’re reaching a PBX end-of-life decision, what are you going to do? There is so much more to explore, but as a starting point, here are some key questions and issues to help shape your thinking:

  • Is your PBX phone system breaking down or simply reaching some functional limits? Many options exist to IP-enable legacy systems and extend their life—or it may simply be time for a change.
  • How closely are you following how employees use all these communications options? Have you considered doing an audit to better understand what’s really going on?
  • Have you considered scenarios where your employees could effectively manage without desk phones? Have you asked them directly if they would consider such an option?
  • Are you still using legacy PBX metrics as the basis for making decisions about your next telephony system?
  • Are the demographics of your employees such that they could adapt their behaviors and move on from desk phones—and possibly even prefer it?
  • If you could seriously consider not replacing your PBX, do you have a transition plan? Could all employees manage otherwise, or only some? What IT investments would be needed to support this plan? Would you consider shifting to a cloud-based communications environment? Would you need to provide more wireless devices to employees?

These are just a handful of the domino-effect questions that need to be addressed in this situation. On a high level, there are technology issues as well as cultural implications. Desk phones are the most familiar communications tool we have, and this type of change does not come easily. Then there are the economic factors. When all is said and done, will you really be better off financially without a PBX phone system?

Bottom line—the opportunity here sounds attractive at face value, but there is a lot to consider. IT needs to see this as a complementary evolution rather than a competition. There is plenty of room for the PBX to work in concert with other communication modes, which will only grow in utility.

About the author:

Jon Arnold is Principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications. IP Communications Insights is a telephony-centric portal showcasing the combined research, consulting and reporting services of Arnold and site co-publisher, Marc Robins, along with insight into independent analysis. Readers can also get Jon’s take on the telephony industry in his top-rated Analyst 2.0 Blog, and his bi-monthly column Service Provider Views.

Dig Deeper on IP Telephony Systems