By Andrew Buss
The last few years have seen significant changes in end user computing. In this workshop we’ve looked at how there has been a shift from desktop PCs towards notebooks, the fact that smartphones have become well established and tablets are on the rise. This has contributed to some quite fundamental changes in how and where people are able to work.
We’ve also looked at developments around email, document sharing, messaging and conferencing that are enabling new ways of working and collaborating. There has already been significant early uptake of these technologies, and many companies that have not yet done so can see the benefit and have them on their roadmaps.
But if there is one thing that tends to be overlooked in all of this, it is the humble telephone system. In the pre-PC era, the desk phone used to be the lifeblood of company communications. As time progressed telephony gradually accumulated more functionality such as integrated voicemail, conferencing and sophisticated call routing based on things like menu-driven – as in choose 1 for sales, 2 for support or 3 for any other issue – or skills based routing. For calls directed at teams of people, special hunt groups could be set up so that the phone would ring round the group one at a time, or all together.
Although the PBX has gained new features, change has happened quite slowly in the back office. As a product of the telco industry, the phone system has typically been bought and operated separately to IT services. Lifecycles are long, usually starting at around seven years and typically operating for much longer. Designed around a private branch or network, the phone system has also been difficult to extend outside the office as the workforce has become more mobile.
Integration with applications was often difficult and costly due to vendor specific proprietary interfaces and a lack of standards, and had to be accomplished on an application by application basis. This hindered the use of telephony services across a broad range of applications and services.
In the front office, the desk phone has seen little of the innovation that has happened in mobile. Computing and mobile phones have tended to become smaller and wireless. The desk phone instead has got bigger and still ties the user to the desk by being cabled into the network and having wired handsets or headsets rather than wireless accessories.
By being inflexible and proprietary as the world was becoming more open and flexible, the use of telephony suffered when email use exploded and other ways to communicate, such as Voice over IP (VoIP), became popular.
The IT industry saw the potential for closer integration of applications, PCs and smart devices with structured telephony, and looked to move voice communications onto the data network. This led to the development of IP Telephony (IPT) and the development of new protocols and standards such as Session Initiation Protocol, or SIP, to support it.
Through a more standards-based approach and defined APIs, it is usually fairly easy to get applications and IPT systems working well together. Many applications that work with telephony now support the major vendors’ IPT systems out of the box.
With IP-based communications and standardised APIs and protocols, IPT systems have also opened up communications to a range of new devices. While the desk phone may still be around, it is now only one of a whole range of ways to make a call.
IPT client applications are available for Windows and Mac PCs, as well as Android, iOS, Blackberry and Windows phones. By being open and based on IP, IPT systems have also been able to adapt to new trends, integrating with other communications applications and services to allow users to choose the best way for them to talk.
Despite the overall benefits that IPT can bring – and its success in the market for new telephone systems backs up how popular this is – many companies still rely on ageing PBX systems. Some are so old they have been in place for longer than most employees have been in the company. There is often a reluctance to upgrade the telephone system as it is seen as complex and expensive, particularly as the existing system may be doing its job quite reliably, if not very effectively.
Yet there are many options now becoming available if you decide to move away from the old PBX systems and on to IPT that do not require an upfront investment in a dedicated system on site reducing much of the cost and effort required to get up and running.
Services can range in complexity from a standalone IPT service with nothing else included to
more comprehensive services which may offer other valuable features such as linking landline numbers to mobile phones, possibly removing the need to run desk phones altogether.
Increasingly though, IPT managed services are being offered together with hosted email, collaboration services and mobile phone integration for those looking to get their communications services from a third party ‘one-stop shop’.
If you’re starting to think about a new or upgraded email and communications platform and have an old telephone system humming away in a cabinet somewhere that you haven’t given much thought to lately, it’s worth putting the question of telephony modernisation and integration on the table with both your business leaders and key suppliers. As the old saying goes, it’s good to talk.
Content Contributors: Andrew Buss