Part 3: Switchvox at Home – Phones

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I believe Digium, particularly with the Switchvox product, is going to continue to shake up this industry with revolutionary simplicity and capability. However, the revolution is still ahead of us. One of the biggest areas for improvement needed is tighter integration with the phones.

The Switchvox folks have always been partial to the Polycom phones – Digium is a little more neutral. Polycom makes good phones (and they know it), but the solution Switchvox + Polycom is still two solutions. Albeit Switchvox made some significant improvements with their phone Tokens, the enemy is SIP. The fact that Digium/Switchvox and Polycom have separate R&D; departments is painfully obvious.

The problem is SIP phones and SIP phone configuration is pretty tricky and pretty limited. For example, my Polycom phone has two features (front and center) that diminish the value of my Switchvox solution. The first is the “MyStat” feature on the Polycom phone. Pressing it allows the user to change their status from “online” to “busy”, “away”, or any of the 7 options on the list. Presence is, after all, a killer app of VoIP. The problem is Switchvox does not support these features yet and mysteriously the phones don’t really broadcast it. Changing the status to “away” works fine, but no one else will know unless they come and physically look on my phone. I understand that feature releases can’t all be synchronized – but do I really have to have this button front and center on my phone? If there is a way to get rid of it, please let me know.

Another annoyance comes from the “Missed calls” counter front and center on the display. I think cell phones have introduced many revolutionary features to the desk phone industry (such as a backspace key), but this one isn’t particularly helpful in a residential environment. The problem is, in a residential environment, a call makes all phones ring. Answering in the kitchen is a missed call for every other phone. As a result the missed calls counter isn’t particularly meaningful. The basement phone is currently displaying 732 missed calls and counting. To be fair Polycom didn’t design these phones for a residential environment, but so what. If it is possible to turn this off off, I can’t find it. I am certain there is no way to turn it off from the Switchvox.

(It is annoying because it is there, but also because it lies. The call logs shows missed, made, and received calls. If I answer the call downstairs and now want that number from my call list upstairs, it is a Missed Call, even though I didn’t miss it. The phone doesn’t know I answered it somewhere else). Perfectly explainable, but stupid.)

The crux of the problem is that unlike proprietary phone systems, where phone programming is truly done from the phone system, there is little control/programming available in a pure SIP environment. Instead, most SIP based solutions expect the user to utilize their desktop to access advanced features. On the Switchvox, it is done thru the “Switchboard” console. So let’s say you want to transfer a call to Mary. Easy as pie on the Switchboard. Simply drag and drop the call to Mary (the display even says if she is on the phone or not or Mary can update her status such as “back at 3”). The Switchboard even allows the option to drag the call directly to Mary’s voice mail icon so it doesn’t ring her phone. These types of features are rare to impossible to find on a proprietary phone system.

However, doing it without the Switchboard is not so simple. Transferring calls is simple if you know the extension. But if you don’t there is no way to look it up on the phone. I already griped about no phonebook on an earlier post – but now (transfer mode) even the buddy list is gone. If I want to transfer to Mary’s mailbox, I need to use a star code (I used *VM or *86), but I still need to know the extension. There is no way to determine the star code, the extension, or her status from the phone itself.

So what happened? Old proprietary wins over state of the art open innovative. (Not to mention I have high end phones with large displays). SIP Happens. The only way to solve this would be for Digium to push SIP to their own needs or implement proprietary signaling. Bottom line is wife wants me to print a list of extensions and post by each phone which I refuse on principle… too high end a phone system and phones to resort to paper post-its.

I have two phones on my home-office desk, a Mitel Teleworker 5330 and a Polycom IP550. Both are comparable phones and both have some benefits over the other. For the most part, I prefer the Polycom, it has some smarter features like a mute button that mutes the speaker, handset, or headset as appropriate (brilliant). Or buttons labeled with words instead of cryptic icons (arrow for transfer?). However, the Mitel kicks the Polycom butt with accessories and features. For example, the headset on the Mitel is integrated into the phone (look ma, no lifter), and my phone has the wifi (optional base for the phone). I can login to the ACD, monitor the queue of the ACD, and of course freely program all my buttons for BLF, speed dial, or advanced functions. The phones have probably more in common than different in terms of capabilities and specs.

From where I sit, Digium could drive SIP much more than they do. Microsoft is a “software” company, but somehow they managed to come out with MS branded SIP phones. I think Digium needs to steer SIP more, with some Digium branded phones that offer a few extensions to SIP. This is going to require a new level of cooperation between Digium and Polycom (or some other SIP phone provider that wants to cooperate). Even though the phone uses SIP for its protocol, the programming capabilities for speed dials could be proprietary. I am not a proprietary advocate, but the standard isn’t strong enough for the current market.

You can do a lot with TFTP, but the Switchvox demographic is menu driven GUI. A PBX administrator should be able to program buttons (line appearances, speed dials, voice mail lights, hold time indicators, etc.) from a simple PBX menu driven interface. Just like they could 10 years ago on a proprietary system.

The other big hole in the marketplace for Asterisk/SIP is and remains to be cordless or wireless phones. We are getting closer, but we aren’t there yet. First we tried wifi phones just to discover battery limitations and QOS too difficult. Now the industry is moving toward DECT phones instead which appear much more promising. It appears the SNOM M3 is probably the best phone on the market for SOHO. I prefer them over the Polycom/Kirk phones because the latter only supports one line. The Astra made phone is too expensive, and the rebadged Astra is too cheap. The SNOM M3 has one major limitation –no POE support (stupid). Polycom (Kirk), Ascom, and Astra have some high end solutions which support POE, but they are really expensive/enterprise (or more accurately hospital) class phones. (I am leaning toward the M3, more on residential DECT in a future posting).

My guess is cordless phones will be replaced with Cellular, but the industry is moving so slowly there is no reason to wait. My current cell (TMO Dash) has wifi and a Dect version is unlikely even on the drawing boards yet.

Bottom line, on an Asterisk implementation, save your money on phones – I like the Polycom 430 as a decent value. The features aren’t on the phones, they are on the console. Plan on printing directories to post above the phones.

Next posting, SIP Trunks and Switchvox.

Dave Michels