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Two separate transitions are occurring that, when together, create a dilemma. The first is the shift from hard phones to softphones. Although this transition is taking longer than initially predicted, the softphone is rapidly growing in popularity. Many UC purchase recommendations are partially justified by the savings associated with skipping hard phones. Plus, full-featured UC desktop clients can be more intuitive and collaborative than telephones.
The other transition underway is a shift away from traditional desktop computers. IDC reported last April that worldwide PC shipments of laptops and desktops fell 14% from the prior year's first quarter. Gartner estimated global PC shipments sank 11.2%, and called it the worst drop since 2001. While it may be premature to declare the post-PC era has begun, it does seem that the venerable desktop has passed its peak.
While phones are shifting to PCs, PCs are declining. This raises the question: What is the logical, safe UC endpoint in a new installation? Or put another way, which is more likely to be on your desk in 5 years: A phone, a PC, or none of the above?
Before exploring alternatives to telephones and PCs, another approach is to reframe the current options. In the case of the telephone, its single-function capability could shift from liability to asset. Perhaps the goal of unifying communications was a mistake. There's an emerging trend of unbundling, such as Facebook unbundling messaging.
Yes, telephones are single-purpose appliances, but that makes them independent of the ever changing versions and suppliers of desktop operating systems and browsers. They do have network dependencies (speeds, power, and protocols), but those tend to evolve less quickly. Although enterprise UC solutions favor proprietary endpoints, most also support basic SIP endpoints. This opens up additional choices of lower priced models as well as specialized alternative devices such as DECT or Wi-Fi phones.
The desktop, too, is being redefined with virtual desktops. Solutions such as Microsoft's Terminal Services, the Citrix XenDesktop, and VMware's Horizon View virtualize enterprise desktops. The resulting desktop device can be a simple PC, an application, or more likely a thin client desktop optimized for Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI).
VDI offers enterprises attractive benefits for many applications, but UC is trickier. UC clients use codecs for audio and video - the message gets encoded and prepared for transmission locally. Moving the client to a remote server with VDI usually moves the codec. This makes audio challenging and video nearly impossible. Server-based audio encoding is possible and supported on several platforms, but the result is very inefficient use of resources.
There are some VDI solutions that keep the codec local. This is only possible if the client has a means to separate the media processing from the hardware that is hosting the client. Mitel and VMware support voice on VMware Horizon View desktops. Vidyo recently demonstrated H.264 video on a Wyse thin client with Citrix XenApp using local encoding. These solutions restrict the VDI implementations and desktop hardware, but offer improved manageability and scalability.
NEC offers its own VDI solution called VPPC, which utilizes its own desktop devices with a multi-media accelerator. NEC reports it is currently testing the solution in a large European university with an on-site 3C implementation.
Still other solutions completely avoid PCs and telephones. The most readily available are mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets. Most UC vendors offer full-feature UC clients for iOS and Android that even support HD video conferencing. Devices like the ShoreTel Dock or NEC Cradle phone make the mobile device suitable for desktop use. The new Android-based DX series of desktops from Cisco can replace a desktop PC and phone. Cisco also offers optimized clients for these endpoints that facilitate enterprise collaboration including support for some VDI solutions.
Another option is browser-based applications. Many vendors offer plugins for popular browsers; or without a plugin, a UC Web interface can complement any phone such as a home line or cell phone. The Web portal could provide access to voicemail, call forward settings, visual or unified messaging, click-to-dial, and other functions.
The hopeful near-term game changer is WebRTC-compatible browsers that will support real-time communications without a plugin. Genband's SmartOffice offers enterprise class UC client functionality in a WebRTC capable browser, without need for another local client. Google recently updated its Hangouts conferencing solution to WebRTC. Twilio and LiveOps provide a WebRTC hosted contact center service.
WebRTC makes the inexpensive Chromebook a viable alternative for contact centers and other Web friendly environments. A sub-$300 Chromebook equipped with a headset could replace the desktop PC and phone - in the contact center or at an agent's home.
Few of the major incumbent UC vendors have released full WebRTC clients, but many are threatening to do so. Most solutions intend to support WebRTC externally, such as B2C communications to the contact center. Cisco demonstrated WebEx on a Chromebook last Spring. gUnify developed a SIP softphone capability that runs in Chrome which could Web-enable SIP compliant UC solutions from any vendor.
Tomorrow's solutions may come from within the industry or outside it. There's a tremendous amount of innovation and capability and the solutions are moving quickly. Vobi (a startup), Oracle (large vendor, but not UC), and Unify's Ansible can all impact the market with new technologies and implementations. WebRTC, in particular, is poised to disrupt as it provides a cross section of clientless, Web-based, real-time, and inexpensive capabilities.
Post-PC UC solutions are increasing, but the market is moving away from PCs very slowly (if at all). Mobile devices continue to grow quickly, and PCs sales are slowing, yet the vast majority of knowledge workers continue to have a PC (or Mac) on their desk. Regardless of the PCs future, it's nice to have choices.
Dave Michels is a Contributing Editor and analyst at TalkingPointz