The Role of Softphones in Unified Communications


One of the frequent questions I hear from people plotting telecom and Unified Communications (UC) strategies is what role softphones should play in their deployment. Most organizations we talk with have some softphone deployment accompanying their IP telephony initiative. For some, giving mobile and/or home workers softphones is the “killer app,” especially for senior executives and managers. Softphones offer significant potential to save money on cell phone and long distance costs for the traveling worker (assuming hotel Internet service is of better quality than old dial-up services). Most softphone deployments (50%) provide an adjunct to the existing desktop phone, but in 34% of cases, the softphone is the only phone. This scenario is most common in the contact center, and for full-time mobile or teleworkers who don’t have or need a traditional office. As UC use grows, so do the capabilities provided by softphones, such as Avaya One-X, Cisco Unified Personal Communicator, Microsoft Office Communicator or integrated approaches such as Cisco Unified Communications Integration for Microsoft Office Communicator (CUCI-MOC). What were once simple instant-messaging clients now increasingly support features such as presence, desktop video conferencing, and the ability to initiate audio or Web conferences. This has led a growing number of IT planners to consider eliminating the desktop phone altogether. Cost is another big driver for interest in softphones. IP hardphones 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, so the cost-savings is clear. Softphones also don’t require a large investment in power-over-Ethernet capable LAN switches, for many the largest cost component of their IP telephony investment. However, there are several drawbacks to adopting a softphone-only infrastructure: • Microsoft Windows XP does not support prioritization for voice applications, so a successful deployment of softphones is predicated on upgrading machines to Windows 7. (Softphone clients may not support Mac operating systems, or they may provide a lesser set of features). • Many individuals are 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. • Voice quality management for softphones requires integration of those responsible for supporting voice with those responsible for supporting desktops. • 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 planners should evaluate these concerns against the benefits that softphones can provide. Often the best approach is to create classifications of workers (e.g., field sales, field service, back-office, IT), and then determine the applicability of softphones for each profile.

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