But What About Softphones?


Last week I discussed the issue of using cell phones to replace desktop phones. Since just about everyone has a cell phone, why not cut telecom costs by allowing employees to use their cell phones rather than expensive desktop phones (and the accompanying LAN infrastructure to support things like PoE)?

Given that my conclusion was that cell phones are only a workable replacement for a small set of users, it isn’t yet practical to consider cell phones as a general-purpose enterprise telephony replacement.

This brings us to the idea of softphones. Surely if cell phones won’t replace the desktop phone, then softphones will, right? After all, Microsoft’s acquisition of Skype last week certainly confirms that software-based voice/UC has reached critical mass. Softphones give us the same benefits as cell – no need for expensive desktop devices and LAN infrastructure upgrades. Just let people use the PC (or Mac!) they already have, perhaps with only an additional headset for voice (and a camera for video if one isn’t built in already to their device).

And momentum behind softphones is growing. Ninety-six percent of companies are deploying them, though mostly as an adjunct to desktop phones rather than as a replacement (e.g., to support the needs of home or traveling workers). Only 34% of companies are deploying softphones as a true alternative to desktop phones for at least some users (typically again, those working from home, hotelling, or mobile).

The cost benefits are clear. IP desktop phones, for example, cost an average of $309 (typical costs range from $100 to $400, depending on the sophistication of the device). Softphone clients typically cost $50 to $80 per user. In some cases, softphone licenses are even free, depending on the platform.

But, there are drawbacks to the softphone only model. First, the hardware cost savings often is offset by the need to provide a high quality headset, often at a cost over $200 per user. So that leaves the only savings from reducing the need to upgrade LAN infrastructure to support Power over Ethernet (PoE) (and additional investment in wiring closet cooling and power backup).

There are a couple of other concerns and issues we’ve heard in our conversations with IT professionals that serve as a cautionary flag for those considering softphone-only deployment models:

• Windows XP does not support prioritization for voice applications, so a successful deployment of softphones is predicated on upgrading machines to Windows 7.

• Not all vendors offer Mac support, a drawback to the still-small, but growing Mac footprint in the enterprise.

• Softphone support for emerging devices such as iPads and other tablets is sparse.

• Many individuals are still reluctant to use softphones coupled with headsets, preferring instead to rely on a traditional handset with speakerphone, caller ID, speed dial buttons, and message waiting indicators. Don’t assume that just because someone Skype’s with their kids that they are ready to give up their office phone for the same experience.

• Voice quality management for softphones requires integration of those responsible for supporting voice with those responsible for supporting desktops. And there’s still a perception of quality differences. One IT leader I spoke with recently who is an avid Skype user noted there while he loved Skype for talking with family, the quality wasn’t yet up to par compared to his office phone. We’ve talked to other firms that have tested IP softphones for customer service agents and found that call times increased as a result of quality issues.

• Software-based voice (and video) may be incompatible with desktop virtualization efforts unless desktop virtualization architecture supports local processing of voice and video data. It’s simply not feasible to take raw voice and video back to the data center for encapsulation into protocols such as G.729. and H.264.

So how should enterprise IT managers evaluate softphones as a potential replacement for desktop phones in their organization? First, conduct a pilot involving people outside of IT, in various roles. Work with your vendors to understand capabilities, limitations, management strategies, and costs of their solutions. Finally, develop profiles to determine the ideal job characteristics for softphone use.

Following these steps won’t eliminate risk, but it will ensure a greater likelihood that you will realize the benefits of softphones while minimizing the challenges.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.