Why Are We Still Using Desk Phones?

Rethinking Communications

Why Are We Still Using Desk Phones?

By Jon Arnold, Principal, J Arnold & Associates  |  March 08, 2016

As per the namesake of my column, the question in the above headline seems well worth asking. There’s definitely a generational element to consider, and despite what you may be hearing from Millennials, desk phones are alive and well. This leads me to the idea that you might want to rethink the role of desk phones in your telephony plans.

Based on recent industry data, Cisco (News - Alert) reported selling record volumes of IP phones in the fourth quarter, at more than 2.4 million units. I attended the recent analyst conference for Unify, where the company shared a similar overall outlook for its OpenScape business. Being private, the company does not disclose shipment data, but the basic storyline is the same.

On a related tangent, IHS Infonetics (News - Alert) regularly produces research on the global state of business telephony. Its current data shows a decline in legacy PBX revenues, but a modest rise in IP PBX (News - Alert) revenues. While it’s easy to conclude that the PBX market is in terminal decline, this drop is coming primarily from the legacy side rather than across all segments of the business.

These findings may seem counterintuitive, especially if you’ve come across people who casually tell you they haven’t used a desk phone in years and can’t remember the last time they actually dialed a phone number. There’s no denying these trends are happening, but it would be premature to dismiss desk phones as being obsolete. On a broad scale, they remain in widespread use, and once businesses migrate from TDM to IP, the desk phone continues to be the endpoint of choice for everyday telephony.

To better understand why mobile phones or other communications modes haven’t totally displaced desk phones – and maybe never will – here are four basic questions to consider.

How important is voice to getting work done?

Short-form modes seem to be all the rage, but when it comes to direct engagement, nothing beats voice. Increasingly, employees need to work in disparate teams, and real-time modes are essential. Since everyone has a phone, voice is the mode of choice, whether for one-to-one calls or in conferencing settings. This reality isn’t changing any time soon, and if you recognize the importance of voice, then it will be easier to understand why desk phones are still with us in a big way.

How good is the user experience?

Voice has utility in an absolute sense, but even more so when the user experience is good. Today, there are many options for telephony, and your employees are likely using more than one. Many SMBs are still using TDM, and employees are no doubt using their mobile devices, sometimes for most calls. When VoIP enters the picture, softphones become another option, and in more advanced deployments, these alternate modes have a feature set that’s comparable to desk phones.

As attractive as these options are, you need to ask about the overall user experience. They may be relying increasingly more on them, but in situations where the call absolutely has to go right, the desk phone will be their go-to choice. TDM has always been expensive because of the quality and reliability, and while VoIP isn’t quite there yet, it’s still far better than what mobility or PC-based options can deliver. Desk phones are purpose-built for telephony, and in settings that support HD, it’s not hard to see why employees still use them.

Are you getting good value for what you spend on voice?

This can be difficult to determine, but it’s usually the reason why companies move from TDM to VoIP. They certainly realize cost savings for telephony service, but there can also be savings on the hardware side. For those using a switched system, an IP PBX will cost less when it comes to replacing a TDM PBX, and very few businesses today replace their legacy systems with new legacy systems. For businesses without switched systems, the good news is that affordable IP-based options are available that can deliver the next best thing.

There are many economical IP-based offerings that offer great value compared to what you were spending on legacy telephony, and you need to ask how that measures up against other options. With VoIP, your service costs are relatively fixed, and the phone systems are usually not capitalized, so the financial burden is manageable.

By comparison, the cost of supporting mobile devices can get very high and difficult to control as well as manage. You’re likely spending a lot on mobility regardless of much employees use it for voice, but compared to desk phones, additional telephony costs can be wildly variable if employees don’t use their mobile devices carefully. Similarly, softphones are an add-on cost, and while the value can be good if employees use them regularly, in most environments, utilization rates are low, both in terms of widespread adoption and frequency of use.

How secure are the phones you’re using now?

Security is a complex topic, but it’s an important question to ask regarding telephony. No form of telephony is completely secure, but when best practices are in use, desk phones pose relatively little risk, especially since the traffic is going over your network. With mobility and soft phones, voice sessions will often be over other networks, including the public Internet. Just as importantly, with these options, usage is occurring with standalone devices and endpoints. In each and every instance, security best practices are up to the end user and there’s no way to control that.

Conversely, desk phones will be part of a telephony solution, where system-wide security measures can be implemented and managed. IT has more control over desk phones in terms of making them secure, and that’s another reason why they’re still in use. Of course, if proper security practices are not followed – and that’s more common than you might think – VoIP poses major security risks. However, there are many effective VoIP security offerings on the market, and this is not a reason to stop using desk phones, especially if you consider the even higher risk levels of relying on these other options for telephony.

Jon Arnold (News - Alert) is principal of J Arnold Associates (www.jarnoldassociates.com).


Jon Arnold is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications, and writes the Analyst 2.0 blog. Previously, he was the VoIP program leader at Frost & Sullivan.

Edited by Rory J. Thompson

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