Where have all the good phones gone?

In my office, I get to try out all sorts of new gear and technologies. And with all this testing come boxes full of gear that didn't quite work as promised, or didn’t earn a place in my daily office life.

The biggest of these boxes is lowest on the high-tech sophistication chart -- my collection of tested (and rejected) desktop phones. The problem with this box is that it’s got mostly new equipment in it. Why? It seems that no one can design a decent small office or home office (SOHO) phone -- plain old telephone service (POTS) or VoIP -- anymore.

It seems like manufacturers have simply dropped the ball when it comes to the needs of the small business and SOHO market (not to mention the modern networked family, which behaves a lot like a small business when it comes to telecom). The huge gap in the market between the $29.99 consumer phones and the high-end, enterprise-ready phones is being addressed very poorly by the marketplace.

I define a decent SOHO phone as one that you can do all the basics -- make a call, put it on hold, switch to a wireless handset midstream, view CallerID, conference multiple lines and so on.

It seems that no matter which vendor I try, I walk away disappointed. Looking at my desk today, you would think I’m either the most technologically inept person in the world, or the most advanced -- I’ve got seven phones on my desk, eight if you count my headset, each for different applications. I cannot get a decent phone that simply works, and works simply.

For example, my Olympia Skype phone has great range and clarity, and the untethered Skype experience is great. But it’s not Wi-Fi so I have to have a separate phone for that, and being an early model, it has no conferencing or speakerphone capabilities. The latest model will bridge POTS and a Skype call, but it’s the only one I know of that will.

I’ve tried some of the Wi-Fi Skype phones but the co-presence on landline is not there. Most are geared towards road use, not the dual role of desktop and travel use. I use my ZyXel Wi-Fi phone for my non-Skype Wi-Fi applications. It works fine for that application and that alone.

My new RCA Executive Series four-line desktop system serves as my mainstay. It’s got all the POTS lines I need, and optional wireless handsets. But while the RCA unit has all the requisite features, it fails miserably because you cannot seamlessly move from the desktop to wireless. You have to place people on hold -- they hear a loud tone which usually makes them think the line’s been dropped -- and then you pick it up again on the wireless unit.

Of course you can get all of the functionality you need in higher-end business systems, but it’s hard to get excited about spending (much) more to get the basics right. Today’s businesses need online interfaces, instant messaging, Skype, Wi-Fi, landline integration, conference calling and the other things I’ve mentioned here. We’re just not there yet.

Now those open source aficionados and “get your hands dirty” geeks will no doubt say: “Build your own Asterisk-based system” or something along those lines. And given time and ability, it is possible to cobble together a system that will do what I need. But let’s face it, this is not a viable answer to those millions of small businesses and SOHO workers out there. What’s needed is a robust, off-the-shelf solution that provides the right feature sets, supports POTS and VoIP and doesn’t cost the entire year’s IT budget.

It seems to me that someone could put together a phone that combines all of these requirements into a simple unit that the major chains feel comfortable enough carrying for the average business consumer. Shame on OfficeMax, Staples, BestBuy and other retailers for not demanding more from their suppliers. There’s so much more than can be brought to the market, and I know there are people like me looking for a phone that does it all well. If you’ve got the solution, I’d love to hear about it.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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