Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/12/21/ip_telephony/

Are your landlines buried in the stone age?

Time to talk IP telephony

By Andrew Buss

Posted in CIO, 21st December 2012 11:49 GMT

The last few years have seen significant changes in end-user computing. In this workshop we have looked at how there has been a shift from desktop PCs towards notebooks, smartphones have become well established and tablets are on the rise. This has caused some quite fundamental changes in how and where people are able to work.

We have also looked at developments in email, document sharing, messaging and conferencing that are enabling new ways of working and collaborating. There has been significant early uptake of these technologies and many companies that have not yet adopted them can see the benefit and have them on their roadmaps.

If there is one thing that tends to be overlooked in all of this, it is the humble telephone. In the pre-PC era, the desk phone used to be the lifeblood of company communications.

Telephony has gradually accumulated more and more functionality, including integrated voicemail, conferencing and sophisticated menu-driven – as in “press 1 for sales, 2 for support” and so on – or skills-based routing. Special hunt groups can be set up for calls directed at teams of people, so that the phone rings round the group one at a time or all together.

Cable guys

Although the private branch exchange (PBX) has gained new features, change has happened quite slowly in the back office. As a product of the telco industry, the phone system has usually been bought and operated separately to IT services.

Lifecycles are long, starting at around seven years and often lasting for much longer. Designed as a private branch or network, the phone system has also been difficult to extend outside the office as the workforce has become more mobile.

Integration with applications has often been difficult and costly due to vendors’ proprietary interfaces and a lack of standards, and is often accomplished application by application. This has hindered the use of telephony across a broad range of applications and services.

In the front office, the desk phone has seen little of the innovation that has occurred in mobiles. Computing and mobile phones have become smaller and wireless. The desk phone instead has grown bigger and still ties the user to the desk by being cabled into the network and having wired handsets rather than wireless accessories.

By being inflexible and proprietary, the use of telephony suffered while email use exploded and other ways to communicate such as voice over IP became popular.

The IT industry saw the potential for closer integration of applications, PCs and smart devices with structured telephony, and looked to move voice communications onto the data network.

This has led to the development of IP telephony (IPT) and the development of new protocols and standards such as Session Initiation Protocol, or SIP, to support it.

Chattering classes

Through a more standards-based approach and defined APIs, it is usually fairly easy to get applications and IPT systems working well together. Many applications that work with telephony now support the major vendors’ IPT systems out of the box.

With IP-based communications and standardised APIs and protocols, IPT systems have also opened up communications to a range of new devices. While the desk phone may still be around, it is now only one of a whole range of ways to make a call.

IPT client applications are available for Windows and Mac PCs, as well as Android, iOS, BlackBerry and Windows phones. By being open and based on IP, IPT systems have also been able to integrate with other communications applications and services to allow users to choose the best way for them to talk.

Some PBX systems have been in the company for longer than most employees

Despite the overall benefits that IPT can bring – and its success in the market confirms how popular it is – many companies still rely on ageing PBX systems. Some have been in the company for longer than most employees.

There is often a reluctance to upgrade the telephone system. It is seen as too complex and expensive, particularly as the existing system may be doing its job quite reliably, if not very effectively.

Yet many options are becoming available for moving from the old PBX and on to IPT that do not require an upfront investment in a dedicated system on site, reducing much of the cost and effort required to make the change.

Putting you through

Services can range in complexity from a standalone IPT service with nothing added to comprehensive services that may offer valuable features, such as linking landline numbers to mobile phones, possibly removing the need to run desk phones altogether.

Increasingly, IPT managed services are being offered together with hosted email, collaboration services and mobile phone integration for those looking to get their communications services from a third-party one-stop shop.

If you are starting to think about a new or upgraded email and communications platform, and have an old telephone system humming away in a cabinet somewhere that you haven’t given much thought to lately, it is worth putting the question of telephony modernisation and integration on the table with your business leaders and key suppliers. As the old saying goes, it’s good to talk.

If, though, you are beyond that and have your telephony all nicely integrated with your email and other systems, or you are in the midst of battling to piece it all together, then share some of your war stories with us in the comment area below. We are all ears.