The Problem with the PBX is the Phone

by Dave Michels



There are few things in the high tech world that have remained effectively unchanged in the past 40 years. Two major commonly used items stand out; the keyboard and the desk phone.

Ok, obviously how these items are manufactured (process and components) have changed significantly, but the basic value proposition and how we actually use them has not changed very much. I want to talk about phones, but just to make my point, let me digress a bit on the keyboard.

Folklore says that the keyboard layout was actually designed to slow people down due to mechanical jamming. I don’t know if this is true, but it is believable. Just look at the placement of the most common letters in the English alphabet; E, T, A, O- none of which are placed under fingers on the main row. Not to mention the esoteric keys of F1-F12 instead of natural keys such as “Save”, “Print”, or “Help”. Or how about the need to use a shift combo for commonly used characters such as “ or ?. The fact is the keyboard is totally obsolete in design, but no vendor or movement has been strong enough to overcome the industry de-facto standard which admittedly will be a major task.

However, we are not trained to use phones a specific way as we are with keyboards. Here, there is no major barrier other than expectations to overcome – yes, we expect little from our phone, it is a modern day relic. In an older post, I marveled at the sheer size of most desk phones which may not seem terribly large until you compare them against popular cell phones. My cell phone has ten times the functionality plus provides its own power and wireless capability in a package half the size of the desk phone’s handset alone.

While the desk phone has come a long way in its construction and technology, our expectations of what our desk phone can do remains largely unchanged. To further illustrate my point, what are the features or capabilities of our desk phones that we are truly comfortable with? Let’s see; Redial, Speaker, Hold. I think that is the list. We know people freak out (without training or experimentation time) on features like Transfer, Call Forwarding, and Conferencing, you can cause a human gasket to blow with more uncommon features such as Call Park or Intercom.

As stated before, I believe the key competition to PBX vendors is not other PBX vendors, but the mobile/cell carriers. Residential users are already dumping their traditional POTs line in favor of their cell phones, and my unofficial research tells me that if you were to walk-in on desk jockey’s while on their phone at their desk, that the percentage of them talking on their cell phone is not only increasing, but already pretty high. Cell carriers will soon discover hosted PBX technology and when they offer features like internal dialing and transfer it won’t take long for the customer to figure out they don’t need to pay for two phone systems (one will go away).

So what to do? The PBX manufacturers need to change the game. They need to redefine the desktop appliance and make it something worthwhile. I don’t think this will be hard considering it’s already happening on non phone desktop appliances.

Hold that thought, let’s take a look at two other products. The Chumby ( and the new “media phone” by OpenPeak. The Chumby is a not a phone. It is a mass market “interactive media player”. It has a 3.5” touch screen, USB ports, stereo speakers and few other characteristics such as 600+ widgets that can allow the Chumby to provide weather reports, sports scores, or news headlines. It can pose as an alarm clock, radio, or a picture frame, as well as many other items. The retail price on the Chumby is about $180, but almost all of its hardware components are already in an IP phone. Yet, I haven’t found a single IP phone that can act as say an alarm clock. Not to mention, an IP phone also has buttons .[Telephone Pet Peeve #126, why can’t phones be reasonable calculators? They have displays and buttons and live on desks (right next to the calculator)– it seems like a no brainer to me. I have found some phones that can do this, but they make the function keys so difficult that they are never very effective].


The OpenPeak Media Phone ( is a bit closer to what I am wishing for. I recently saw one atVoiceconSFO in the Intel booth (Atom processor inside). Unfortunately, OpenPeak’s current product is geared for the residential market and will and only be sold to service providers , but it is the closest thing I’ve seen to real telephone innovation. They are also about to launch anEnterprise version.


Here, they have built what they call the third screen, which lies between the TV and the computer. Users can access stock quotes, manage daily activities with calendaring functions, or enjoy video, music, or games. The residential unit has the screen/base as an IP/SIP device and the phone is separate, and theDECThandset/charger is independent. The enterprise unit has a corded handset connected to the screen.

These media players represent basic, but compelling value that IP phones don’t but should. In fact, when you think about the sophistication, technology, and price of an IP phone, it is amazing what it can’t do. Compare that to the functionality you take for granted on a cell phone (phone directory, calendar, calculator, call history, etc.) and the desk phone begins to look like a $300 paper-weight.

But there is more to this than media playing. The desktop phone needs to be crafted into new and existing applications. Here are two that are underserved; alarm clock andVirginiaTech.Just as I have a pet peeve that business phones should double as calculators, I am also upset that phones don’t double as alarm clocks. Could it be the technology? Considering an $8 digital watch comes with an alarm and stopwatch, it can’t be the technology. Could it be the fit? Take a look around the office (or home) and see how many clocks you can find – usually a lot. Could it be technical incompatibilities? Let’s see, a display, a ringer, and a time source – check all there. Then why isn’t there an alarm clock on the phone? Consider the uses -time, timer, wake up, alarm, reminder, world time, even moon phase and time zones, all for maybe $0.10 (if that much) in additional cost. I am not talking about PBX controlled features either, but rather desktop controlled features like a Chumby widget.

While we are at it, I want five new standard buttons on desktop phones: the four basic math functions and “intercom”.

TheVirginiaTechapplication is much more serious. The idea here is an always-on controllable, 2 way IP device can be very useful. Think of how much IM made an impact to the way we communicate over the past five years and it becomes clear. Most classrooms still rely on PA/Intercoms that disrupt the classroom and can’t convey private information. With the IP display phone, non urgent messages could be displayed on the phones, confidential messages could require a key code, urgent messages could involve the vmail light and/or ringer. Messages could contain important instructions or even insist on confirmation or a response.I have seen some vendors demonstrate this ability, but they require custom development or expensive additional licensing – to me this is a basic critical application that needs to be built-in – just like the calculator and alarm clock. The PBX deskphone is the perfect place to establish this office appliance.

So here we have two applications from me, but how do we ensure that we have the ability to add the applications you want? Much like the two devices above, we need to create an environment accessible by both developers and customers.

Android may be the fastest step to the solution. Android is an open OS designed for a phone by Google. Yes, an operating system for a phone. Android is specifically optimized for the Google experience, but it is a robust open source phone OS with many of the basic components (maps, YouTube, contacts, calendar, clock, etc.) already there. I believe a company like Polycom or Snom could do wonders with this. Combine it with the SIP protocol and Asterisk and we have two open source communities ready to unleash a revolution. Did I mention there are already 600+ Chumby widgets?

Yes, it is time to update our expectations of the desk phone. (Let’s also retire that silly coiled wire. Dect is the way to go). Then we can focus on updating the computer keyboard.