Hanging on the line: The desk phone's second life

Desktop phones, smartphones, tablets, and PCs should all work with a phone number as easily as email works today across devices

Hanging on the line: The desk phone's second life

Chances are very high that you have one at your desk: a phone connected to a landline or a PBX. It may be a basic model, or it may be fancy, with a display screen, employee director, and configurable voicemail greetings. It may be analog or digital. Whatever it is, it sits on your desk, so it has little utility when you're elsewhere.

And when you're away, you probably use a personal cellphone or (less common) one provided by your employer -- to check your desk phone's voicemail, if nothing else. How 1980s!

But most of us still need a desk phone, for many reasons:

  • Cell service is variable, and it's often unreliable within buildings. Plus, using cellphones adds cost that many employers don't want, and BYOD approaches mean business communications goes to personal phones, which in fields like sales is dangerous for the company.
  • Wi-Fi calling on smartphones is in its early days, and cordless Wi-Fi phones are not widely deployed. Broad deployments also mean significant upgrades to corporate networks -- and they don't work outside the office.
  • Plus, we don't have an infrastructure at all our desks to keep those smartphones operational throughout the day. Charging stations and headsets at least need to be ubiquitous if we're to rely on smartphones all day for voice; their batteries can't take that usage, and they're ergonomically awkward for extended use.
  • Desktop phone apps and conference services tether you to your computer via a USB cable, and routing the audio properly is often confusing on both Windows PCs and Macs. Logging into such services across multiple devices gets into geek territory, leaving most employees out in the cold. And such phone and conference apps often work poorly on mobile devices, despite improvements in recent years. Oh, and those that send you text transcripts or audio attachments of your messages litter your email inbox with usually irrelevant calls from scammers and salespeople.

Basically, the new digital technologies are inadequate, so the trusty old phone survives. It even has an advantage: If you're an exec constantly call-spammed by salespeople, you can turn off the ringer and send all calls to voicemail, using email, a second private line, or a personal cellphone for taking legitimate calls. The desk phone becomes the phone you dial out on or use for conference calls.

But the mess today is a transition phase. We're haltingly moving to where phone service will work like email: multiple accounts available on multiple devices, so you can access it anywhere while still keeping work and personal "lines" separate.

This future is not going to be that hoary unified communications vision. Companies like Avaya, Cisco, HP, and Microsoft have been trying to foist this nonsense on us for years. The result is a confusing, expensive "solution" that requires starship pilot training to be able to use. We don't need to merge email, messaging, calls, conferences, and so on together into one big glob.

What we do need is to be able to communicate wherever we are in a simple, filtered manner. Having multiple channels is great, but they should stay separate, with minimal links among them, such as the option (not default) of getting alerts via email or message of calls from key people. 

Today, most of the new-world phone action is happening on smartphones, thanks to the improvements in second-line apps that let you use VoIP to have a second phone number on your iPhone or Android phone, to separate work and home calling. The forthcoming iOS 10 takes these apps a step further, integrating them with the standard Phone app, so you don't have to switch among apps based on the number called or that you want to use.

But some new-world action is also happening on desktop phones, particularly in the consumer and small-business worlds. Cable companies have long offered VoIP service over their Internet connections, most recently using analog telephone adapter (ATA) boxes from Cisco or Grandstream that plug into your router. But they tend to charge the same high rates as the traditional copper-line telcos.

Fortunately, new providers have recently come on the market, such as Ooma and Vonage. Some older providers, like Vonage, charge about the same as your cable company, making their value proposition iffy even if they've improved quality from only a few years ago. Ooma provides a spiffy set of somewhat pricey hardware and a good service price, but it doesn't have multiple-line hardware that a small business would likely want, instead requiring some kludgy workarounds involving installing multiple add-on devices and then connecting them to each other.

Those aren't your only options. Other companies are joining the fray, such as Pioneer Telephone, with both low-cost equipment and fairly priced service (around $15 per month per line, including taxes and unlimited domestic calling). They use the same Grandstream or Cisco ATAs as the cable companies, which are available in one-, two-, and even four-line models. 

Better, these new services often have second-line apps that let you check voicemail and take calls from your desktop phone on your iPhone or Android phone. That's key because it solves one of the dilemma of traditional second-line apps or voice-forwarding services like Google Voice: simple integration with the desktop phone.

Vendors should understand this concept given how email and messaging services like AOL Instant Messenger and Slack have long worked: The service should easily move among you endpoints. For email and messaging that's meant computers and mobile devices. For phone service, that means desktop phones, mobile devices, and (least critical today) computers. But the industry norm has instead been to try to replace the desktop phone, despite their ubiquity and extreme ease of use.

That norm is slowly changing. Using a digital phone provider like Oooma, Pioneer, or Vonage -- not to mention most cable providers -- you can increasingly use your smartphone, tablet, and computer as an endpoint for that same number. What you can't do yet is use that number on multiple desktop phones, such as at home and at the office.

For home users, that's not a big deal. But it becomes a big deal for businesses with offices, shift workers, or field forces, where it would make a lot of sense for a line to follow an employee as email does -- including from one desk phone to another.

I'm sure we'll get there. We're already seeing a form of this emerge in the form of Apple's Handoff technology, which Microsoft's Windows 10 is now copying and can be done on Android by installing third-party apps. With Handoff, a Mac or iPad can send and receive SMS texts and cellular phone calls with the same ease as an all-digital messaging service like AIM or Slack. For Handoff, the cellphone is still the network connection point, so it's limited. But one day we should be able to let multiple devices connect over the Internet to the same service, as they can do already with email, Slack, and so on.

The trick will be to do so without apps, so today's phones can be treated as endpoints for virtual lines. Or to do so with inexpensive new desktop phones that can support multiple digital service providers (exactly as phones have long supported multiple analog providers) as well as standard PBXs and analog connections -- similar in concept to what the FCC is trying to force the cable TV providers to do for cable boxes, so they can run third-party services like Roku, Hulu, Slingbox, and Apple TV, not only the cable provider's proprietary offering.

I know that's tough for telephony and networking vendors, who want to sell you a locked-in, end-to-end "solution" for maximum revenue. But all the lock-in offerings have failed because they are too expensive and too complex.

The bottom line is that communications needs to be easy. In the digital age, that means mindlessly portable across a range of familiar devices. We're not there yet, but that future's outlines are starting to emerge.