High-End IP Phones: More than Desk Candy?

For companies where only the best will do, there's one motivator for high-end IP phones that trumps all ROI arguments: These babies just look better and are easier to use

June 28, 2007

12 Min Read
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Sure, $500 designer jeans will make you look cool, but are they worth your hard-earned cash? Many IT groups are asking the same question about high-end IP phones, such as Avaya's 9640, Cisco Systems' 7970G and Siemens' OpenStage 80, that cost several times more than conventional desk sets.

The reality is, some employees will see benefits commensurate with costs—if IT has the drive and skills to take advantage of the integrated applications that represent the biggest potential advantage of these systems. Of course, vendors want to help and are working hard to offer easy and reliable integrated application platforms, such as Citrix Application Gateway.

As for who should buy in, high-end IP phones fit like those pricey jeans in verticals, such as medical care or hospitality, where their features provide for emergency broadcasting or customizing hotel room service. Most systems include "hospitality features" in their application suites.

Nay Sayers Speak Out

Gartner created a stir last summer when it estimated that over the next five years businesses will unnecessarily spend $20.3 billion on IP telephones with screens."Many companies are replacing old phones with fancy, screen-based IP phones and IP PBXs with related hardware; however, most users continue to use the new phones like their old phones, only with a few new capabilities, such as viewing missed calls or for directory dialing," said Bob Hafner, managing VP for Gartner. "Ironically, in most businesses, the IP screen phone is placed on the desk beside a PC that has a much bigger and higher-resolution screen."

While Hafner is dead right about the utility of duplicating color screens, Bluetooth technology and USB ports alongside PCs and laptops on corporate desktops, the use of these devices as customer-service and alerting tools in hospital waiting rooms and hotel guest rooms and on retail countertops is another matter. As we predicted back in 2006 (see "Why You Should Take VoIP Plunge—Now" ), for these service-industry markets where PCs are not feasible, high-end IP phones constitute more than fashion statements. They have a lower TCO than a PC because they run a tight, proprietary OS specifically designed for the hardware, with just a few specialized applications. Phones are also easier for users to move, add and change without IT's intervention and so tend to have lower support costs. Finally, the ability to soft-label feature buttons and change them depending on context makes these phones significantly easier to use than their conventional brethren.

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The Wow Factor

The hospitality industry lives and dies on convenience and luxury, so high-end phones are as de rigueur as spas and HDTV in guest rooms. The Hospitality Financial and Technology Professionals (HFTP) featured the Cisco/Nevotek V/IP-Suite as a key part of the "hotel room of the future," with particular emphasis on such high-end features as Web-browsing cap.

There are practical benefits, too, as Avaya demonstrates in its own hospitality showcase. The Avaya phones Las Vegas' Wynn Resorts uses in its 2,700 rooms let visitors access a variety of hotel services, such as browsing restaurant menus. Although initial deployments at the hotel only push information to the phones, one could imagine ordering room service, even reserving a table and ordering food from your room, reducing wait times at the restaurant.

Academic campuses also have seen success with high-end phones. Lee's Summit School District near Kansas City, Mo., recently consolidated a half-dozen disparate phone systems on to a Mitel system. The central administration is about to move into a new building, which will increase the number of meeting rooms from two to 14. Phones with schedule-planning features will allow users to reserve a room, even schedule the next meeting, from any location. The school is also considering using the phones for broadcasting functions as needed for emergency alerts or lockdowns.The common denominator: These kinds of applications require large displays. Although smaller than a standard LCD monitor or laptop, the screens on today's high-end phones, at about 3 inches by 4.5 inches, enjoy a better resolution than ever before—with color. Until recently, the best of the phones from Avaya and Siemens used 320x240 pixels, but Siemens' newest model, the OpenStage 80, includes a 640x480-pixel VGA monitor along with a screensaver. It can even associate pictures with callers. Polycom doesn't offer a color phone, but has one in the works.

Application Transformation

While screen size and color are nice, the heart of the functionality equation lies in how well any device delivers applications. LifeNet is the largest nonprofit, full-service organ-donation agency and tissue banking system in the United States. For its staff, reliable phone communication is a life-or-death proposition, says Kevin McPhee, LifeNet's manager of telecommunications. Coordination among the donor's family, the hospital, recovery technicians and the potential recipient to recover the organ and deliver it in time must be managed without skipping a beat. LifeNet uses Avaya's 9600 Series One-X phones to quickly add callers to contact lists for speed dial directly from call logs. When the next call is received on that number, pertinent information about the caller pops up to aid communications.

For reliable operation in industries like hospitality and medical care, high-end phones must communicate with application servers using standards-based protocols like HTTP and WAP (Wireless Application Protocol), as well as markup languages like HTML, WML and XML, giving IT more control over the phone and easing application integration for faster deployments.

In other words, if your organization is going to put high-end phones in all of your guest suites or waiting rooms, then IT either needs to do the integration work, or shell out for a product like Citrix Application Gateway to do it for them. Avaya, Cisco Systems and Nortel Networks all use this integration platform to deliver and transform packaged applications to their phones' screens and speakers with minimal effort on the development side (see the features chart in the image gallery). Citrix Application Gateway also streamlines integration of custom Web applications. Organizations could choose to do the integration themselves, but that will entrench them in a product development lifecycle.

Cell-phone vendors have long offered lightweight WML browsers designed to display Web content on small screens, for use with their Internet-capable handsets, but today's larger screens and faster cellular data services have made HTML more prevalent on smartphones. The four high-end phones we looked at provide HTML interfaces that Web designers can use to create applications for the desktop VoIP phone, giving flexibility as well as integration in application development.More recently, Cisco and others have started using XML interfaces in their phones, paving the way for third-party applications to be rendered on a variety of screen sizes and shapes. And, development platforms are gaining popularity; for instance, Design Studio, which is part of the Citrix Application Gateway, is useful in simplifying application development and enhancing an organization's phone investment. LiteScape Technologies makes a middleware platform for building applications on Avaya and Cisco phones. IPcelerate's IPsession suite provides as many as 30 capabilities for Cisco phones, including presence, call blocking, intercom and paging.

Presence is particularly vital in those instances when individuals must see the availably of others on the network. It's a common requirement across most environments, but has special importance in areas where shared PCs are not available, such as a nurse's station, emergency transport or security checkpoints. Anywhere staff may need to communicate over a large area, high-end phones are a valuable asset.

Tale of Two Codecs

While flashy features and bigger screens may capture attention, phones are all about voice, so it stands to reason that audio is a huge factor—much like paying for a Bang and Olufsen instead of buying a Panasonic, you expect quality on all levels. Problem is, all IP phones are still striving for improvement in audio.

The standard codec for VoIP is G.711, also known as PCM (Pulse Code Modulation). It was developed when the PSTN was digitized in the 1970s. G.711 samples frequencies in speech from 300 Hz to 3,400 Hz, which was considered the range for normal human speech. As a result, subtleties in speech above or below that frequency range are lost during encoding. A simple example is telling the difference between an "f" and an "s." How many times have you been through the "F as in Frank, S as in Sam" drill when dictating individual letters over the phone?

Some dialects, languages and accents make heavier use of the higher and/or lower frequencies, and the inability to discern the nuances can make it difficult to communicate at times, especially in an increasingly global environment that links people with different backgrounds. We automatically compensate for these technical limitations by taking into account the context of the sounds in words and sentences, but this puts a strain on the listening process and can lead to miscommunications.The answer to the problem is G.722, also known as wideband.The G.722 codec understands frequencies from 50-Hz to 7,000-Hz, however, to take advantage of this wider range, both endpoints have to support the codec. If a call is connected through the PSTN, the gateway device will transcode and essentially downgrade the audio to G.711. To avoid this, organizations may want to consider VoIP peering, though these providers, too, often transcode the audio to the lowest common denominator.

The good news is that G.722 doesn't require any more bandwidth than G.711, which uses about 85 Kbps on an Ethernet network. And, like G.711, it doesn't require that a vendor pay a license fee for implementation. Improved acoustical components in phones that better reproduce the frequencies may provide some additional benefits. The G.722 codec is already in use for some videoconferencing systems and may one day show up in 3G communications.

If you want to improve audio quality for callers on your system, you should evaluate G.722-capable phones. Siemens was an early proponent of the wideband codec for higher-quality audio, and most of the vendors we spoke with have this feature in at least some of their devices. Avaya also is making use of G.722 for improved sound, and its phone uses improved acoustic hardware to take full advantage.Siemens' OpenStage phones include Bluetooth and USB ports, as do Avaya's devices. The Bluetooth on the Siemens phone, however, can be used only to exchange vCards—the company plans to add support for headsets in the near future, but until that happens, its Bluetooth support is little more than a curiosity. Likewise keep in mind that the codec used in today's Bluetooth devices does not support G.722, so its associated benefits are lost.

USB ports can be used to plug in a memory stick to back up and restore data stored on the phone, and to load pictures associated with callers. More practical uses are the ability to plug in a high-quality speaker and microphone to use as a conference phone or to add a USB WLAN adapter for wireless access.You Get What You Pay For

Bottom line, whether these devices are worth the price depends on your organization's priorities. It's true you're going to pay for a high-end VoIP phone, but a vendor like Cisco is much more likely to respond to a problem with a detailed fix than an off-brand alternative provider would be.In addition, high-end IP phones may offer intangible benefits. They're easy to use, minimizing training and support costs, and they reduce deployment friction through integration platforms that deliver and transform application packages. There are other potential savings in the move away from legacy PBXes, as well as conservation of physical office space when phones are used for functions such as hot-desking, increased customer convenience and a spiffier company image in public areas. For service-based organizations or companies with distributed staffs, or for those who just want to dress to impress, high-end IP phones might prove a good investment.

Making sure you can justify a corresponding amount of business benefit is the key.

To smooth the transition to a new VoIP phone system, insist on soft labels for phone buttons, to help employees access the many features they might have previously ignored because they didn't want to memorize those cryptic star features. Testing out whiz-bang features such as Web-like applications is a good idea, but don't pay a premium for a high-end phone based on a vendor-hyped application. There's nothing wrong with having a phone that's cool-looking or has celebrity status. There is marketing advantage in projecting a successful, hip image for your organization—but that shouldn't be the main reason to make a considerable investment.

Peter Morrissey is an NWC contributing editor and columnist and a faculty member of Syracuse University's School of Information Studies. Write to him at [email protected]. Mauri Stott is an NWC contributing editor and writer based in Syracuse. Write to her at [email protected].

SQUISHY LOGIC: Can Soft Phones Beat High-End Hardware?

All the vendors we spoke with offer soft phones that can run on desktop or laptop PCs, which clearly have much better screens than even the highest-end phone. This begs the question: Why would you need anything more than a basic phone if you can get the same functionality and more from your PC running a soft phone?First off, there are benefits to having a real-time application like voice on a dedicated device, with a screen that's always available and can't be buried under other windows. There's also the issue of screen real estate, and not being able to make or receive calls or even check voicemail until your PC boots and you plug in your headset—and that's if everything comes up smoothly. Another benefit of a hard phone is that it gives IT the ability to easily segregate voice traffic from data traffic—and from a compromised PC or the big, bad Internet. It also makes it possible to provide QOS.

All compelling arguments, and indeed, according to Dell'Oro Group, current and projected soft phone sales are and will continue to be a fraction of desk phone sales.

If soft phones appeal to you, note that most vendors will allow you to use a soft phone to control your hard phone—you get a richer environment, yet retain the ability to just pick up the phone when you have to. The best of both worlds.

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