Network Computing is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Whose Fault Is The IP Phone?

One of the best recent additions to our family of contributors over at No Jitter is Dave Michels. Dave has a background in the end user and reseller world, and he also has his own blog, Pin Drop Soup; he's just written a feature for No Jitter on the idea of the "Dumb PBX" (you can find the feature here.You should definitely read Dave's feature and ponder his idea of the "dumb PBX." Thanks to the "stupid network" hype of the Internet boom years, low intelligence is not just for Miss Californias anymore. I'd never heard the concept of a "dumb PBX" before reading Dave's article, and it's an interesting approach to the IP telephony/Unified Communications architecture of the future.

But rather than trying to encapsulate Dave's key point, I want to look at a side issue that he raises, almost in passing. In discussing the potential for investment protection via preservation of legacy phones, Dave writes: "Other than the micro-browser, modern IP phones really don't offer any additional functionality over their predecessors of the past 20 years--and few users actually utilize the micro-browser."

Some vendors might quibble with Dave's statement and be able to dredge up a feature or two that's new, but I don t think you can really argue with the fundamental truth of what Dave says. Avaya has recently come out with the concept of a "media phone," which does try to be a fundamentally different type of device, but the cost and features included (like video) will likely make this a niche purchase for most enterprises.

All of this got me to thinking about how the PBX/phone vendors approached the first generation--or, let's say, Generation 1.5--of IP phones (which is basically the generation we're still in). The vendors could have acted on the understanding that, as IP devices, these new phones could have been anything-they didn't have to be exact replicas of the previous generation.

As Dave Michels suggests, they could have been essentially stripped-down PCs, using that micro-browser as an interface to selected services, internal to the enterprise or Web-based.
The vendors could then have built those cool new services, using the arguments that Avaya's now using for media phones-the telephone is always on, it doesn't crash like a PC does, etc.

Along the way, there were a few examples of innovation in phone design. Siemens put iPod-style touch-wheels on some models. Mitel built consoles that housed a WLAN access point. This was actually a somewhat cool idea; the device could act as either a WLAN endpoint-using WiFi rather than wires to connect to the network, in places like retail outlets where wiring is tough; or it could be a WLAN access point, boosting your office's coverage while giving you landline survivability and voice quality when you used it as a traditional desk phone.

The point is, this sort of out-of-the-box thinking was pretty rare. Some phones looked a little different than phones used to look-ShoreTel put a lot of effort into ergonomics and design. Yet in general, the IP-PBX manufacturers overlooked the "cool" factor just as it was coming to dominate consumer communications devices.

I don't know if a cooler look would have saved the IP phone from the path to oblivion that it seems to be on. Maybe users don't think of their work phones that way, or maybe they were always going to migrate away from wired phones to mobiles, so it was just as well that the vendors didn't try to gussy up the desk phone. It might have been embarrassing, like a 50-year-old divorced guy who gets an earring, a tattoo and a Bowflex and goes out clubbing.

But in a time when nobody's spending money they don't have to spend, an enterprise manager has to ask whether a straight TDM-for-IP phone replacement is worth the cost. What does an IP phone really give you?An enterprise manager has to ask whether a straight TDM-for-IP phone replacement is worth the cost.