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Evolutionary Endpoints

This year has seen more significant steps than any time in recent memory towards moving the endpoint away from the legacy phone model into more diverse, functional and flexible models.

This year the makers of endpoints are offering some truly innovative hardware, indicative of an industry in transition. Note use of the word "endpoint"--convergence isn't just about bits. Some devices are so multifaceted that "phone" can be perceived as derogatory. The distinction between devices, phones, browser, video devices, fill-in-the-blank app, etc. is increasingly fuzzy. The desktop device became an endpoint a few years back, but admittedly even most of the new endpoints are still largely curly-corded phones.

The endpoints announced this year provide evidence of new patterns emerging. These devices reflect how the industry is changing. Ten years ago, the number of buttons was the tell of a device's advanced capabilities. Five years ago, it was more about stature--the advanced phones stood tall, prominently on the desk. Today it is the resident software and application library (or potential library) that separate the endpoints from the phones.

To appreciate the evolution, take a look back. The phone is one of the more stubborn, change-resistant pieces of technology on the desktop. The march of desktop technology largely skipped the telephone, at least its basic appearance. Typewriters became computers; computers got sleeker and smaller; monitors went from green CRT to thin-screen HD; adding machines lost the crank, shrunk, and became calculators; printers went from dot matrix to lasers--but the curly-corded handset device from the '50s is still recognizable and effectively contemporary to the masses (NoJitter readers excluded).

Many core elements of the telephone are just wrong or out of date based on modern standards. For example, the numbers are in reverse order. Personally, the digit order makes sense to me; but calculators, computer keyboards, and adding machines put the low numbers in the bottom row. Today, the phone stands alone with the "1" in the top left position. This can be a real annoyance for softphone users.

Phone jargon still includes classical telephone references. "On-hook" was logical when phones had hooks. "Dialing" made sense when phones had dials. The dial was on its way out when "redial" was invented. The irony is that only people without a dial can "redial".

Evolutionary steps are more significant this year. The Cisco Cius and Avaya Desktop Video Device together represent huge changes. For the first time, these CPE market-leading companies are prominently featuring Wi-Fi, developing 3G capabilities, and utilizing an external operating system. These changes represent the top three big rules in telephony: mobility, mobility, and mobility. Earlier WiFi phones were fairly limited and received little attention from the major VoIP system makers, but enterprise WiFi technology has come a long way. WiFi voice is now feasible with proper infrastructure. 3G is the big leap; these new tablets are enabling enterprise CPE vendors to enter the world of cellular data. Cisco and Avaya are betting that organizations will value an enterprise-class alternative to the myriad consumer devices penetrating the environments.

It is interesting that Avaya and Cisco, both with proprietary embedded system legacies, ended up with Android-based devices. Google makes Android available royalty-free to any manufacturer, allowing for customization of capabilities and skins (with some constraints). A free operating system has to be fairly cost attractive. The degree to which these vendors will support third-party applications remains to be seen, but regardless, an ecosystem of programmers for custom apps already exists.

In addition to Avaya's and Cisco's entry, RIM announced its PlayBook, a tablet designed for the enterprise, and HP is expected to release a tablet based on WebOS (Palm). The attention grabber at a recent StartupCamp was Cloud Telecomputers, with its Android-based SIP deskphone. More Android devices are expected.

The application library is what matters. Applications can be controlled in a variety of methods, including alternative Appstores; Amazon is launching its own. Alcatel-Lucent is recruiting developers for its new OS and My IC Phone. Phone applications are not new to enterprise CPE--call center tools, even voice mail, qualify as phone applications. What is new is powerful app-ready endpoints. Very soon, desktop phones will advertise their specifications such as processor speed and memory. New IP phones and endpoints come with SDKs and APIs. Many capabilities can be accessed regardless of phone system.

A significant number of smartphone clients have been released this year. These clients generally provide access to extension settings, logs, and voice mails. The smartphone clients typically bridge the gap between enterprise extensions and cell phones. Some clients enable various methods to initiate or receive calls or update status information.

Video enabled phones were launched this year by Cisco, Polycom, and Grandstream. But video endpoint devices which place more emphasis on video than voice calls are a different matter. Most CPE vendors offer a video-enabled UC client for the desktop computer, while more robust desktop telepresence endpoints were released by Tandberg, Radvision, and Polycom. The list is even longer when considering the broader video market; head-turning examples this year include:

* CounterPath's Bria softphone, which supports video
* Apple's FaceTime
* Skype's new 10-user videoconferencing
* Oovoo hosted videoconferencing.

A increased level of connectedness is demonstrated with the newly released Grandstream IP video phone. It can directly connect to over 500 million Skype users, including video calls. This wasn't accomplished with some complex licensing negotiation, but by spending six weeks applying the Skypekit SDK released last summer. The device interoperates with many other video brands, is SIP compliant, and also displays appointments from Google Calendar and personal photos from Flickr as a screen-saver.

USB ports are appearing on IP phones now. They can be found on high-end models from Avaya, Cisco, Mitel, and Polycom among others. The USB port's functionality varies, but example uses include firmware upgrades, storage (such as screen saver pictures), and enabling local call recording. Many phones now include a security or locking feature to restrict access to contacts and other personal information.

The evolution also pertains to what is now considered standard features. Standard features on VoIP endpoints now include 802.3af (POE) support, no paper labels, SIP mode (not Lync phones), a 2nd LAN port, and wideband codec support. Almost-standard features include a full duplex speaker phone, gigabit networking, a micro XML browser (not on Lync phones), and a medium-to-large backlit display. The higher-end models typically offer Bluetooth options, touch and/or color screens.

SIP phones are increasing in popularity and even the proprietary vendor solutions are offering endpoints with a SIP mode or capability. Enterprise-focused converts to SIP include Avaya, Siemens Enterprise, and NEC.

Enterprise wireless phones are also evolving. The Aastra DECT phones now include a "man-down" feature that can alert others if the phone is horizontal for too long. One challenge with WiFi phones is battery consumption, so Polycom's new 8400 series phones feature a rapid boot to reduce the impact of swapping the battery. They also support 802.11N, and sport an integrated bar-code scanner. Polycom and Aastra both now support geo-tracking too.

There are a few features still missing from the evolution. Electronic hook switches--giving the ability to go off-hook without being lifting the handset, are still too rare. It's an important feature for headset users that instead resort to mechanical lifters (probably the single most embarrassing work-around ever). We're also anxiously waiting for a "Hold-No Music" button. Conferencing is so prevalent that music-on-hold too often creates a problem. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely we will ever see improved end-to-end signalling standards, but the DTMF keys (numbers, the star, and the pound keys) are just too limiting. Maybe the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum (UCIF) can create new buttons for "Yes", "No", and "Go Back" keys.

Dave Michels is a regular contributor to No Jitter, and he has his own blog, Pin Drop Soup.