Remember a decade ago when the softphone was supposed to be one of the killer applications for VoIP? Why use the big clunky desk phone that takes up space on your desktop when you can use a softphone that’s fully integrated into the PC that you sit at every day? Makes perfect sense, right?
However, the market didn’t exactly play out that way. Despite the wide availability of the software and the ease of deployment, my research shows that less than 10% of workers who have the choice actually prefer the softphone. There are some situations that make sense, like for road warriors. They’re rarely in a place where a wired phone could be used on a regular basis. For the rest of us, though, despite the promise, the softphone has never caught on.
The answer to the question "why hasn’t the softphone become more popular" is based on usability. The vendors have done everything they can to make the softphone more usable, to the point where it actually looks like a picture of the phone so users know where to click and what functions are available.
Despite all of that, the usability is still awkward. It’s not that it’s hard, it’s just cumbersome. For example, with a regular desk phone, putting someone on mute requires hitting a button that says "mute." Putting someone on mute with a softphone requires moving the mouse over the mute button and clicking the mouse, but it could be as much as finding the app, bringing it up, going to the menu bar, finding the settings tab and then putting the microphone on mute. It’s this inconsistency that makes people not want to use it since the phone is the same all the time.
This week, Logitech released a keyboard called the "UC Solution for Cisco 725-C," which is USB keyboard that includes nine keys specifically for controlling softphones and video. These functions are:
- Voicemail retrieval
- Call answer/ hang up
- Volume up/down
- Audio mute
- Video mute
- Speakerphone on
- Headset on
- Handset on
In addition to the function keys, there’s an LCD display that shows incoming caller ID making it easier to see who is calling.
I certainly don’t believe we’ll see one of these on every desk in the near future, but there are some strong uses cases for this type of device. Call centers, hot desking/hoteling environments or anywhere you see shared workspaces such as nurses stations, banking, and trader turrets.
This specific device works with Cisco solutions today, which makes sense based on Cisco’s overwhelming share, but I would expect to see a Lync and Avaya solution down the road. The keyboard is bundled with a camera and mouse for a reasonable price of $269.
Is this a game changer? Not really, but it does make the game different. The "dead simple" ease of use, as Logitech describes it, is something we’ve all grown accustomed to in the world of traditional telephony, and now we can have that with desktop-based communications as well.
Touch screens may eventually obviate the need for something like this, but it will likely be a while before we see the touch screen widely deployed and the softphones designed with touch in mind. Until then, companies looking to be more aggressive with VoIP and softphones can definitely benefit from this innovatively designed keyboard.