Will the Smartphone Replace Enterprise UC

by Dave Michels

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 Switch.co’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.