Switchvox at Home Part 2

by Dave Michels

Continuing observations of a full featured PBX in a home environment. As my journey continues, my respect for the Switchvox grows, as does my realization that this industry has a long way to go.

In a residential setting, the most likely to be useful feature has to be intercom. Both room to room and room to all (paging) makes a lot of sense in a home. I know it makes sense as there is a whole industry around residential intercom without a phone system.

But Intercom on most PBX’s is difficult. It is considered a “key system” feature which is beneath most PBX’s (I have yet to find any two people in the industry that agree on how a PBX and key system exactly differ). The Polycom 550 phone has hard buttons for Directories (see prior post), Applications, Conference, Transfer, Redial, Hold, Menu, Messages, and Do Not Disturb (plus softkeys). No button for “Intercom”. Isn’t the ability to communicate internally within an organization a key requirement/expectation of any phone system?

The feature is indeed supported on the Switchvox (as with many other PBX systems) as
a star code. (Remember the first time you heard “star code”?, it sounded so futuristic – surprise). I think it makes sense for PBX’s to make Intercom a “hard key” feature. The feature on the Switchvox is accessed via a self determined star code (I chose *37 or *DP for Direct Page). So to intercom ext 105, I need to dial *37105. I find that a bit much to dial/remember. I eliminated the esoteric star code with a substitution dialing rule (dial 305 instead of 105) (thanks Randy @ Digium), so now I just need to remember every extension (and to substitute the 3 for 1). Easier, but not easy. By the way, this dialing substitution rule would not be possible on most other PBXs.

Intercom is such a difficult concept for PBX vendors to grasp. Not only are there no hard-buttons, but the manufacturers don’t get Do Not Disturb (DND). DND is taken so literally – it makes it so the phone can’t disturb you. But I think most folks want DND to stop calls, not intercom. I’ve received complaints about this from customers and experience the same frustration at home. My son puts the den phone in DND when he does his homework, but now I can’t page him that dinner is ready. A stand-alone Nutone intercom system doesn’t have that problem. Work or home, assistant or mom, intercom should work in DND – at least as an option.

I used to wonder why people get so flustered around phones. How often to do you hear something like “this is my first day, so if I lose you please call back” during a transfer attempt. (My reactive thought is always ‘I don’t care what day it is, you should be able to transfer a call before you were hired’). But the reality is phones are totally esoteric. Even these fancy ones with huge displays and tons-o-buttons designed to make things easier. My Polycom 550 phones have 30 buttons not counting the 0-9 keys. But if a visitor can figure out how to 1) intercom me, 2) page all, or 3) park a call without being taught- it would be quite an impressive accomplishment. These reasonably simple and common steps are not self discoverable from the phone alone.

That is just the user experience, now let’s take a look at the administrative experience. Here we need to suspend common sense and apply PhoneLogic instead. Asterisk did a lot to break-down the barriers to PhoneLogic, but not completely. For example, In a typical PBX deployment, a call only rings a specific phone or small group of phones. In a residential environment, we want all phones ringing at the same time. So programming a PBX to ring all phones is not something commonly done. One might assume it would be done with a Switchvox feature called “Ring-All”, but that is totally unrelated. To ring all the phones we need to set up a “queue”. Of course, the term queue is normally used to refer to how to deal with calls that don’t get answered. It actually all makes perfect sense, phone systems are getting significantly simpler in someways, but the features and requirements continue to grow and complicate things – not a bad trade.

Now that we have all the phones ringing, we have one new albeit small problem. The display on the phone tracks missed calls. So if all phones ring and I answer it, that is a missed call for every other extension. The Den phone now has 438 missed calls prominently displayed on the large LCD screen. I am sure there is a way to get rid of that counter, but it isn’t intuitive (I have some thoughts on the Polycom phones coming up). Keep in mind, our technicians generally all agree that the Switchvox system is the most intuitive and friendly system encountered – particularly compared to the other systems we support. But that doesn’t make it an intuitive and friendly.

Switchvox at home is an interesting experience. I will be adding some additional thoughts on features, phones, and carriers shorty.