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Future Of The Phone, Again

A couple of interesting developments have come up recently when it comes to desk phones. A recent blog by Steve Slattery, VP and general manager of Cisco's IP Communications Business Unit, made reference to two market research studies that offered up conflicting projections on the future of the desk phone:Gartner predicted that 40% of desk workers wouldn't have a desk phone by 2013, while In-Stat forecast almost 31 million IP business phones shipping in 2012, indicating a healthy market going forward. Which vision, Slattery asked, is correct?

I've long held the view that, as the market leader (with rising share) in "traditional" IP-PBX, Cisco has built up a considerable stake in the margins from mid- and high-end IP desk sets. In his blog post, Slattery offers the obligatory answer as to who's right -- it's "the customer," of course -- but what if the customer decides to move en masse away from desktop phones?

Get ready for a new product category, something called the "media phone." This term is still being used by different people to mean different things; the In-Stat report cited by Slattery suggests that the "media phone" will be a consumer device, while a new set of announcements from Avaya defines the "media phone" as "a cross between a telephone and PC, allowing direct access to applications and Internet-based information through a large color touch screen with a high-quality phone." (You can see a picture of the new Avaya 9670G phone here).

Wait a minute, you think. Didn't we go through the whole Web-browser-on-the-phone idea several years ago, at the very beginning of IP telephony, when people first realized that such a thing was possible? Then we figured out that people who had a PC right next to their phone probably wouldn't care to browse the Web on a telephone screen.

The obvious answer is that these kinds of phones are ideal for environments and applications where you need a high-quality phone together with the ability to do one or a few discrete computing applications. In his blog post, Steve Slattery of Cisco mentions time card apps as a natural for IP phones in general. Hospitality -- i.e., hotel rooms -- is another vertical where high-function, rich-featured IP phones have long been mentioned as a natural fit.

There's not much new in this concept, but maybe we're getting to the point where it makes more sense than it originally did. The only device that's more endangered these days than the IP phone is the desktop workstation computer; laptops and smart phones are taking over to the point that a hard-wired, immobile PC station might seem like overkill in certain situations. Maybe that's where the "media phone" goes.

It's interesting to see the enterprise voice industry make these moves into pretty intensive, proprietary hardware at the same time that the broader trend is toward software-based systems that, at least ostensibly, aim to be more standards-based. Think of Cisco's big investment in telepresence, or Avaya now putting its stake in the ground with the "media phone."

So is a cross between a telephone and a PC a good idea? Sure, for certain applications and verticals, users may find such devices optimal. More important, vendors need them to stave off complete commoditization. At first glance, it's hard to imagine such devices selling at the kind of scale that would maintain revenue as we saw in the days of proprietary but relatively low-function IP desk sets.

But we're in uncertain times now, and vendors have to try multiple approaches to find the right product mix going forward. Media phones, like Telepresence, may find their niche.We're in uncertain times now, and vendors have to try multiple approaches to find the right product mix going forward.