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Phones Face a Darwinian Challenge

Phones. Love 'em, hate 'em, they're everywhere. We carry our phones with us, they're found in virtually every room we enter and, increasingly, our laptops and office PCs are used for telephony.Apple rocked the world with the iPhone, Google is hoping for a big splash with Android and RIM used the Blackberry to build an empire. Making a simple voice call has become almost passe; we use our phones to send almost many text messages as voice calls and, a few months ago, video-equipped mobile phones beamed images around the world of a would-be revolution in Iran.

Just about everything about phones has changed in the past decade, but in enterprises, all this innovation has yet to have an impact on a long-standing budget reality: Phones continue to account for about 35% of the cost of a new communications system.

While it's an overstatement to argue that Unified Communications has put a spotlight on this expense, many of UC's core elements alter traditional calling patterns and thus enable us to rethink the value of traditional phone technologies. For example, text, email and IM have already had an impact on voice mail--fewer ports are needed because there are fewer messages coming in via phone.

Now the phone is squarely in the sights of communications revolutionaries. Earlier this summer, a series of articles was posted on NoJitter that considered the future of phones in the enterprise (see here, here, here, and here). Not surprisingly, this conversation spilled into VoiceCon San Francisco.

But before phones can disappear from enterprise desktops, something has to be available to replace them. Maybe it'll be mobile phones...but not until the carriers break down their walled gardens, and there's no sign that'll happen anytime soon. Or maybe FMC will save the day, but progress remains incredibly slow, in large part because of the attitude of the aforementioned carriers.

Or maybe SIP will rescue enterprises from this burden. Maybe, but only if you believe in the Standards Fairy. SIP has kicked around for more than a decade and it certainly is becoming the de facto standard for signaling between VOIP systems, devices and the network, and between networks. But from the demarc back to the handset or desktop, proprietary protocols rule. We find ourselves in the exact same situation we were in when TDM dominated the scene: Vendors pay lip service to open standards but devote their time and money to create lock-in situations. And, in fairness, many enterprises also swear they want open standards but they don't make it a requirement when it comes to the details of their RFPs.

Well then, maybe softphones will replace hard phones. Maybe, but not anytime soon. During VoiceCon I moderated a panel discussion on "The Future of the Phone in the Enterprise." If you listened to the panelists, you'd have thought that softphones were almost a given in many enterprises. But then this comment came in from someone in the audience: "We have 1200 desktops and about 250 softphone users. About 80% of the problems my staff responds to is for those softphones.... They're not ready yet." When I read that comment aloud, the audience cheered.

So, do phones have a future in the enterprise? Sure. The way things stand today, just about every type of phone has a future in the enterprise. I don't think Darwin intended his theory to apply to inanimate objects, but when it comes to enterprise phones, a Darwinian process has already begun.