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Does the desk phone have the same future as the PC? The answer may surprise you

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It’s always a pleasure to be invited to join a panel of experts at the Enterprise Connect conference.   Dave Michels, industry analyst from UC Strategies, invited me to join his session “Reports of the Desk Phone’s Demise Are NOT Greatly Exaggerated.” This was a session for conference attendees to hear about the latest ways their employees will be communicating in the years to come. Judging from the title, you would expect the traditional desk phone would not be top of mind. However, when Dave asked the audience “how many of the people in the room are planning to invest in more desk phones for their employees in 2015,” the percentage of the audience was not what you would have expected. It was rather surprising that almost 100 percent of the audience DOES plan on buying more desk phones, contrary to the theme of the session.

This is the perfect example of decision makers reflecting real world observations, rather than following the claims suggested at conferences. When the vendor panel was asked “do you expect to sell more phones in 2015 than in 2014?” my answer was “Absolutely!” In fact, the same theme was presented last year and we saw that ShoreTel and almost every competitor on the panel shipped a record number of phones in almost every quarter in 2013. It certainly is true that the desk phone is just one of many devices people use at certain times, along with other devices such as smart phones. And even though every person in the hotel is not at work, they are still working and many are reachable by smart phones, tablets, Macs and PCs. Saying the desk phone is dead is like saying the laptop and MacBook are dead, replaced by the tablet. It’s far from true. Sales of PCs are certainly flat or declining, but few people are able to use a tablet for developing that 100 row spreadsheet. The tablet is a great access device, as is the smart phone, but they are usually next to the computer which does the heavy lifting, and people are just keeping them longer than before. It’s the same as the desk phone. When you’re in an office with a door, a desk phone offers superior sound quality and a much better experience than a Bluetooth headset from a smart phone. It’s more comfortable for long calls, and far more appropriate for conference calls.  So it’s all about using the device that makes sense for the moment, such as the smart phone in the taxi cab, or the tablet in the hotel room, or the desk phone with speakerphone for a long conference call.

Conferences seem to bring back memories of technology and fashion from years gone by. Microsoft introduced Microsoft TAPI or Telephony API, which was intended to make desk phones standard across all vendors via the Microsoft standard. That was in 1985. Here we are almost 30 years later, and there is no single TAPI business phone to be found, and even the adoption of SIP for phones has been implemented by all vendors in a unique way, due to the variability of how SIP RFCs can be implemented.  That is why you don’t see ShoreTel SIP phones on an Avaya, or Avaya on a Cisco, or Cisco on another brand unless there has been some effort to make them work.  While that war has been waged, the path has led to using standard smart phones and tablets with software such as the ShoreTel Mobility software. It lets you place or receive calls using your business caller ID identity on those devices, without revealing your personal number. It’s truly the desk phone for the mobile generation, like having a business desk phone in your pocket or used for that call in the back of a taxi. I use my iPhone 5 in my ShoreTel Dock on my desk. No other desk phone needed.

WebRTC was also a big theme of the show, with many vendors talking about how it can be used, even though there was no mention that neither Microsoft nor Apple has embraced it as a standard. So you can use Chrome browser on an iPad, or perhaps Firefox instead of Internet Explorer, but it’s going to be a while before your see WebRTC as a true ubiquitous standard on all browsers. ShoreTel’s software is already incorporating WebRTC technologies under the hood, so we’re ready to make the move, but it’s just not ready for prime time for business users. When Dave Michels asked “which of the panel members would like to see a WebRTC desk phone device on their desk” I offered the first answer of: “Absolutely not – that would be a disaster! The last thing people in this audience want is another $500 box that isn’t going to be supported in 2 years by a vendor, when they can instead use WebRTC on the devices their users already bring to work – such as iPads, or smart phones and MacBook’s they already love and want to use.” That earned a huge round of applause, shutting down the discussion from vendors wanting to show off their latest expensive devices similar to the Cisco Cius that is already no longer supported.

The rule I have as a panel speaker is always be willing to share your view of what you truly believe, and don’t take the safe ‘middle of the road’ answer that doesn’t help people in the audience learn what they need for their business. Let people decide how they wish to be effective, because work is no longer a place, it’s what individuals do for a company. And many choose to use a desk phone in the office for that exact purpose.