Wireless Phones: Disappointment for VOIP
The Wi-Fi or DECT phone could have been a logical desktop replacement/alternative if only they were ever presented/designed appropriately.
There is no aspect of VoIP products and technologies that has been more consistently disappointing than Wi-Fi or DECT phones (real phones, not the apps on a smartphone, which continue to exceed expectations). Both VoIP and Wi-Fi exploded around the same time. Think of the potential if they had only embraced each other.
My first Wi-Fi phone was produced by Symbol. The phone had a lot of potential. It wasn't cheap, and wasn't particularly robust but managed to make VoIP work over what was effectively an 11-Mbps hub (802.11b). Several VoIP vendors integrated with it. The device was young, but so was VoIP, so improvements were expected. Motorola acquired Symbol in 2007 and killed the phone. Motorola experimented with an Android VoIP phone (I saw a prototype), but never brought it to market.
That didn't faze me, so I bought some other off-brand Wi-Fi phones. I soon realized I would have to get used to disappointment.
Wi-Fi wasn't really designed for voice--it posed challenges with speed, contention, and power consumption. There was promise--higher-bandwidth 802.11g and then 802.11n offered hope. Also, some Euro tech called DECT was making headway overseas.
I went to VoiceCon in 2010 hoping to find some new wireless options. Upon my return, I wrote "No one had an 802.11n phone...none of the "voice" vendors had any new wireless offerings." So let's check out this DECT thing.
DECT phones have better range, use less battery, and were/are gaining traction in Europe. I tried a few out, but didn't like any. All the DECT makers were/are European companies, and designing for their market resulted in very small phones with even smaller keypads (Polycom's DECT phones come from its Kirk acquisition based in Denmark). I use a DECT headset (small, no keypad), but DECT phones are for the (European) birds.
Then came something promising: Polycom/Spectralink's new 8400 series. It offered an app environment and a high-speed scanner option to potentially replace the non-phone Wi-Fi scanner used in various production locations. SpectraLink was a strong vendor with wireless phones (first digital, then Wi-Fi), but being acquired by Polycom didn't bode well.
SpectraLink had some strong vendor partnerships. I noticed Barnes and Noble was using Spectralink phones (with Toshiba)--so was Home Depot (with Avaya). They made a lot of sense in retail as they offered long ranges in a big store. It was just a matter of time for these products to improve with better features and lower prices. Wii-Fi networks were extending across buildings, campuses, hospitals, even hotels--so Wi-Fi was positioned as the ultimate cordless extension.
Polycom acquired Spectralink and Kirk to expand its impressive IP phone business into the world of wireless. Other than Cisco, no UC vendor really had much to offer in integrated Wi-Fi phones. Unfortunately, Polycom was focused more on video so it made very few changes to its VoIP line-up. In the past three years Polycom has introduced three SIP phones (VVX1500, VVX500, and 8400).
Meanwhile, mobility goes crazy. FMC becomes a requirement across organizations--Aastra offers DECT, Wi-Fi and FMC solutions, ShoreTel uses its Mobility solution to penetrate enterprise accounts (even those using competitive VoIP solutions), Cisco offers multiple solutions in this space, Ascom offers integrated solutions with numerous UC vendors, and CounterPath becomes a major player in softphone solutions for mobile devices. Polycom determined that the best path was to exit the business by selling off the wireless division while it still had value.
Last May Polycom announced its intent to sell the wireless division to Sun Equities for $110 Million. Everyone I spoke to was happy (relieved?). I was at a conference soon after the news, and multiple vendors and partners seemed elated, believing that Sun Equities would give the attention that the wireless opportunity deserved. Unfortunately, Polycom announced at its most recent quarterly review that the deal was dead, and it was now suing Sun Equities for failing to close.
Sun Equities has counter-sued Polycom for forgetting to mention that the division's two largest customers, Lowes and Home Depot, bailed on Spectralink. Polycom insists that it wasn't material as those two accounts represented only 10% of revenue last year. 10% of revenue? Two largest customers? Sounds material to me.
There are certainly some very good VoIP/SIP-ready Wi-Fi phones on the market from Polycom, Cisco, Aastra, NEC and Unidata. I don't mean to suggest these devices don't work. My disappointment is that they never caught up to the deskphone. They don't offer things like hands-free intercom, busy lamp field (BLF), video, and consistent programming/configuration tools. The Wi-Fi or DECT phone could have been a logical desktop replacement/alternative if only they were ever presented/designed appropriately. A cellular account is not necessary! That's why the iPod Touch, iPhone, all tablets, and even the Kindle are available in Wi-Fi-only versions.
I believe an opportunity still exists, but I'm no longer optimistic anyone will seize it. Wi-Fi isn't going away, it's getting faster and ubiquitous. People want mobility and carry their laptops and tablets around the office (along with their smartphones). Costco and Target have more wireless/cordless phones on their store shelves than wired models. There is quite literally nothing that a high-end desktop VoIP phone does that necessitates a cable--yet they still require one on their models.
When Lowes told Polycom "no thanks" on more Spectralink phones it was because it intends to use iPhones instead. I can see the logic: iPhones aren't expensive and they offer a lot of versatility. But they are delicate devices, likely to get stolen, and are not designed for a retail environment with hard cement floors. If only something else was.
Dave Michels is a Contributing Editor and independent analyst at TalkingPointz.com