Research, analysis, and thought leadership for enterprise communications.

Will the Smartphone Replace Enterprise UC

by in Telecom

One of my favorite topics over the past decade is the future of the desk phone. There’s been a debate about how and when it will die. At first its nemesis was the desktop softphone. Gradually over the years the desktop client and hard phone learned to co-exist. This worked in part because we now have more than one endpoint per user. This spread to smartphones, and now most UC solutions sport smartphone clients which resparked debates about the desk phone. The desk phone continues to do well, but this soap opera is about to get juicy.  MitelLogoTag4c

Despite what the UC vendors say, there’s something rotten in Denmark. Desk phone sales are ok, but usage is way down. We’ve tried some transitional strategies like docks and Android based desktop phones. The problem is the smartphone app doesn’t nail it either. Organizations love the idea of smartphone apps, and they do buy/license them, but users don’t use them.

Another issue is that desk phones are not cheap. A decent desk phone runs about $300-$500. A few important notes here:

  1. This is a higher price than the obsolete digital phones that the IP phones replaced. New tech is supposed to be cheaper or better.
  2. If you compare the costs to something other than alternative desk phones, these devices are actually really expensive. For $300 you can get a fairly robust smartphone, with OS and a catalog of millions of apps, chock full of radios (GPS, bluetooth, wifi, cellular), sensors, a battery, a video camera, and an HD touch-display. Why are desk phone so expensive?
  3. The desk phone apps that we expected with the VoIP revolution really never materialized.
  4. Most enterprise UC systems still use proprietary endpoints.

I’ve always been a champion of the desk phone, and thus not surprised that both Cisco and Mitel claim hard phone sales are up. That said, I’m not bullish on the future of desktop phones, and the threat isn’t an app.

The threat to desk top phone is clientless enterprise communications on a smartphone. This isn’t a new idea, nor is it reasonable with today’s technologies and barriers.

The biggest barrier today is Apple because it won’t open its dialer. Without dialer integration, UC apps are forced to be side-shows, never as easy as the native dialer. The best example I’ve seen of dialer integration comes from’s Android client. After configuration it completely disappears, and that’s its key to success.  With Switch it’s possible to make calls from your UC work number from the native mobile dialer  -no extra steps. Someone sends a telno via SMS, just touch it and dial. It won’t work the same way on Apple devices (it can’t) and because it uses cellular voice it is very limited in what it can do. For example, you can’t escalate to video.

The next approach is to move the UC magic from the device to the network. Mitel has quietly offered this for a while as an MVNO. As a mobile operator, it can change your callerID in the network (to be same as your desk number). This approach is also voice oriented and although it doesn’t require a smartphone app (or even a smartphone at all), it does require Mitel (Sprint) as the cellular provider.

The next generation of the network angle will be enabled by 4G. Most 4G services today are still using 3G for voice. I expect to see this change soon, most likely (guessing here) from T-Mobile (with Mitel) and Verizon (with BroadSoft). In this scenario the full UC experience is delivered over 4G. There’s still a lot of work to do here, and although it bypasses the current Apple dialer, it still likely requires Apple’s blessing. If/when the full UC experience can be delivered natively to the smartphone (including contact center integration, video, IM/P, and other advanced features), then the role of the separate enterprise UC platform or service becomes questionable.

Ironically, the UC platform/service is more at risk than the desk phone. Check out T-Mobile Cloud and Clear (Netherlands) solution that pairs desk phones with mobile service.

Mitel is the only UC company really talking about this. It’s a grand vision, but realistically still years away. It’s working in the labs, but I don’t think the carriers or users are ready yet. Mitel calls this next generation Mitel Next and you can read about it in this free TalkingPointz 2Pager.



Spread the word:

  • Mike Storella

    As usual Dave, you make some
    compelling arguments regarding the needs of the enterprise and the technology
    coming down the road which calls for a real operational change for the
    enterprise. Whether it is cloud or premise based UC/IPPBX, the enterprise/ SMB
    needs a face to the public, such as a main number and automated/live
    attendants to route calls to the correct department or individuals.

    While I think a 4G/ Broadsoft ,
    Verizon team could pull this off I am not sure this is for everybody and not
    here yet. Soft clients are here, they work as you mentioned, very
    affordable, secure and once enterprise / hosted or premise based UC/IPPBX start
    to funnel calls to a DID number ,resident
    on the smartphone app I think the users will embrace this more than they have in
    the past.

    The IP hard phone has its place
    ( think of a nurses’ station in a hospital) but generally employees are
    forwarding their calls to their smart phones. We will present some of the
    case for smartphone business phone apps on an upcoming webinar.

    • I think that the change in telephony will come from consumer access to businesses through their websites that first provide access to information first, and only then, contextual contact with people. Recent studies have shown that consumers prefer self-services rather than relying only on people to provide such services.

      Regarding mobile endpoint devices being used by employees at a desktop, docking options allow BYOD mobile devices to replace the old and expensive desktop phones.

      For contacts with a location, rather than a person, of course a hard phone will be useful, as you cited for a nurse station.

      • Mike Storella

        Arthur, I agree on a few points, communication thru a business web site seems to me has used “chat” assistance as the choice of most businesses to help a consumer. I actually thought SIP/ WebRTC would have happened for voice assistance online but I think you are correct most consumers want to do things themselves with the least involvement from the business. Chat is pretty efficient too. I just think that smartphone have eclipsed the need for a IP hardphone, just read another article that it is taking over some turf of the PC too , with online purchases going mobile too this holiday season. Cheers

  • Rocky

    Don’t count out Apple native dialer integration through the Apple+Cisco Partnership…

Telecom in Your Inbox

About this Post

Dave Michels By

Dave is an independent analyst focused on enterprise communications. he provides public content on TalkingPointz and other industry websites, and also works with clients directly.

, ,