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Wednesday, 15 May 2013 08:30

Docking the deskphone market

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Watching ShoreTel demonstrate its iPhone/iPad telephone handset dock last week I decided I was witnessing the beginning of the end for the deskphone as we know it.

OK, that's going a bit too far, but given the growing momentum behind BYOD, it's not hard for envisage a very significant shift from dedicated deskphones to devices that simply add some useful functions to smartphones and tablets.

ShoreTel has developed the ShoreTel Dock because increasingly employees' smartphones and tablets are becoming their primary device for work-related communications, but they do have a few limitations. Battery life is not great, neither is the handsfree voice - two shortcomings that become particularly limiting when users have to take part in hours long teleconferences.

When the mobile device runs an app like ShoreTel Mobility that is integrated with an IP telephony and UC system it comes very close to mimicking the functions of an upmarket screenphone that is designed to work with the same system. All that's really missing is the handset, speakerphone and dialpad. There is little reason for organisations to invest in screenphones when users are increasingly favouring their personal mobile devices and can turn them into a fully functioning deskphone via a low-cost dock.

And if market forecasts are correct organisations will soon be freed of much of the cost of these mobile devices. Gartner is forecasting that, by 2017, half of all employers will stop providing mobile devices, will expect employees to bring their own and they will contribute only a portion of the costs.

Commenting on the forecast David Willis, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, said: "BYOD strategies are the most radical change to the economics and the culture of client computing in business in decades. The benefits of BYOD include creating new mobile workforce opportunities, increasing employee satisfaction, and reducing or avoiding costs."

Gartner also expects that employers will gradually reduce their subsidies for BYOD and as the number of workers using mobile devices expands, those who receive no subsidy whatsoever will grow. "The enterprise should subsidise only the service plan on a smartphone," Willis said.

The idea of a tablet-sized communications device that can dock to become a deskphone is not new. Remember the Cisco Cius? Its short life is testimony to the rapidity of change in the mobile industry and in particular to the speed with which BYOD has gone from barely tolerated to being widely accepted.

Cisco launched the Cius less than three years ago (June 2010). It was an Android-based tablet but dedicated to Cisco functionality. It supported most of Cisco's unified communications offerings and it docked into a deskphone.

On the occasion of its unveiling Eric Krapf, editor of the No Jitter web site in the US and a regular blogger on all things UC, pronounced "Tablets are indeed the new phones," but with the caveat that "No matter how slick or inventive, they won't replace the existing deskphone if they're too expensive."

And, as we can see with the benefit of hindsight, a dedicated tablet won't survive the onslaught of general purpose smart devices. The Cius wasn't available as a commercial product until early 2011 and 18 months later, it was dead. On 25 May 2012 Light Reading reported: "Cisco has stopped development of the Cius tablet, opting instead to put its efforts into software for the BYOD enterprise trend."

Light Reading quoted Barry O'Sullivan, senior vice president of Cisco's collaboration and communications group, saying: "Our strategy for the future is all about software and about making sure that applications such as WebEx and telepresence can run on multiple platforms, including tablets and smartphones."

But given that it had come up with the idea of a 'tabletphone' that could dock into a handset back in 2010, you'd have to wonder how Cisco managed to let ShoreTel beat it to a more universal device.

When Cisco was unveiling Cius, Avaya came out with the Avaya Desktop Video Device (aka tablet). It too was a telephony/UC device. It ran the Avaya Flare Experiences - Avaya UC software that Avaya has since made available for Android, iOS and its own deskphones. The Avaya tablet is still available but while Avaya seems to have sensed the shift to BYOD earlier than Cisco, it has not yet gone so far as to come out with a dock for its tablet.

So ShoreTel has the lead, for now. But what's important to note is that the Dock is not a particularly smart device. All the smarts are in the ShoreTel iOS app. At all times communication is though the iOS device. ShoreTel has an Android version under development and possibly one for BlackBerry.

At about $350 the ShoreTel Dock is a lot cheaper than an upmarket deskphone. Competition will emerge, prices will come down and it will become very attractive for employees and employers alike to have the BYOD as the sole communications tool that gets docked on the office desk, at home or in meeting rooms.


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