back to article How smart does your desk phone need to be?

The business IP telephone market has spent more than a decade trying to establish exactly how much intelligence the market wants in its telephones. The customer's answer has almost always been “less than the vendors want to sell us.” Anyone looking for an albino pachyderm can therefore point to the CPUs and APIs baked into IP …

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Yes

Is “as dumb as possible” the best answer to the question “how smart should the office phone be?”

Yes, because business phone UIs are terminally horrendous (I have a Polycom unit at my desk, that is blinking red, I have no idea why, nor can I be bothered about fixing the darn thing, even though I am a Telecoms engineer by training).

Of course, the real answer, as any Millennial can tell you, is the best office phone is no phone, you should be using IM (or email for this old fogey) instead.

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Re: Yes

Of course, the real answer, as any Millennial can tell you, is the best office phone is no phone, you should be using IM (or email for this old fogey) instead.

While "chat" is great for some things, its a really crap replacement for talking to people. The problem with chat is there is no natural synchronisation between the parties, making the conversation slow and stilted. When you talk to someone, they hear what you are saying as you say it. The words are often only a small part of what is being communicated you pick up on many nuances from the way they speak. Adding the occasional smiley doesn't provide the same experience, besides smilies are fully under the control of the typist (give or take the normal shit quality of peoples typing in chat session) while the way that emotions affect peoples voice gives a much truer indication of what they are feeling.

Of course talking on the phone isn't as rich an experience as talking face to face.

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Re: Yes

"Of course talking on the phone isn't as rich an experience as talking face to face."

We have a mix of desk phones along with LifeSize ClearSea as a desktop video client with LifeSize video systems in meeting rooms. Works great - you can email for some things, call for others, and if you really want a proper conversation where you get full attention from someone, you use video.

But you don't need the phone to be smart at all really.

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Re: Yes

> While "chat" is great for some things ...

Chat does have some advantages: everything "said" is on the record - there's no denying what each person committed to. It is also useful for the timid and "quiet" people, who would not normally speak up in meetings - and conversely chat tends to moderate the loudmouthed git who dominates meetings. Also, it's great for people who don't share the same native language, or accents.

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Headmaster

Re: Yes

"I have a Polycom unit at my desk, that is blinking red, I have no idea why

Because your phone is connected to a microwave oven somewhere, and it's notifying you that your soup is warm an ready.

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FAIL

Our IP telephony hardware is a crock. Comms don't know (or care) how to set them up properly so half the features don't work, plus the interface is woeful; so even if the features weren't inactive you'd need a doctorate in deciphering anti-logcal icons to suss out what the buttons are supposed to do. Even programming speed dials requires the use of a cheat sheet for most folk.

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Anonymous Coward

Surely that's the point though?

Half the 'features' on these phones are useless 'gadgetry' in the real world and will be used once or twice then forgotten?

The 'wow' features I spent hours configuring for one client who insisted they'd make full use of the IP phone system were used at the demo, once or twice by the idiots who bought the system and then forgotten about by everyone.

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Pint

Indeed. We are however lacking core stuff like call logs.

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FAIL

@DF118

Oh yeah...the call logs. They tell you everything you don't need to know and nothing you do need to know. Then there's the small matter of getting the data out of the things so that it means something to someone in business,

Then there are the call cuts offs and call crashes for no apparent reason and no one who sold the bloody things can find out why either. They just retreat to their "data centre" and have a wa** whilst the business managers go apeshit on IT's ass (who didn't buy or spec the things in the first place). No, that's the fault of some twat in business who thought IP phones were good for his CV and legged it pronto shortly after they were bought. I'll stop now to get my blood pressure down.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Comms don't know (or care) how to set them up properly

It's very different where I am.

Our IP telephony is a crock. The IT people don't know (or care) how to set them up properly. We don't have any comms people to speak of. And if the network dies, or the mains dies, the whole shebang fails, not even a handful of fallback phones for the use of the thousand or so people on the site.

Apparently it's called progress.

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Sitting at the desk in the office, IM, e-mail, voip, and visual chat on the computer, a cellphone for when you're away from the desk. Office phones have become a bit redundant these days.

*But*, a big, important looking phone covered with bells and whistles is still a status symbol among office types, even if it's rarely used.

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What's a desk phone

A desk phone is a waste of space.

A headset on my laptop gives me hands-free and VoiP calling, with IM and desktop sharing available when I need it too. The cell phone gets me when I'm elsewhere.

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“how smart should the office phone be?”

Richard, my 1958 Western Electric 500 D is as smart an office telephone as I need. It was manufactured for use in (and ownership by) a monopoly telephony service, so its defining characteristics are durability and ease of repair. If only my other office equipment had been built to such a standard!

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We use a Mitel product - 3300

My wife owns two 30-40 room hotels and I have a business employing just under 40 people. Previously we had used Skype for our hotels but since MS assumed ownership, and it's attendant loss of privacy, we moved to Mitel.

All businesses are linked through a 3300 series switches. What attracted us to them is the lack of yet another desk hogging screen. Simple handsets with the essential minimal of buttons yet backed by a switch that allows us to take advantage of the latest switch features. Hotel guests don't need to learn yet another set of operating instructions.

Although our two hotels are separated by hundreds of kilometres, guests are not aware their calls are being handled remotely at certain times of the day. As I was involved in the connection of the first Mitel switch interconnected to the switched public network in Canada, I have always been aware of the in-depth study of customer needs by Mitel which gives their products an edge.

Our non-hotel office controls all it's calls, within and without office hours, and after hours calls are handled with a pre-programmed destination assignments which ar both landline and handset. We do not expect our salary staff to be available 24/7. Our systems can also handle English, Chinese and Vietnamese customers without operator intervention.

So many of the new systems seem overly complex with far too many features that, like Word, most get ignored.

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Re: We use a Mitel product - 3300

The 40 people you employ, they don't happen to sell Mitel phone systems by any chance?

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No Speaker required

A speaker? At an average open-plan office desk? For meeting rooms maybe but not at your desk where a headset is of more benefit

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Anonymous Coward

Re: No Speaker required

Definitely .... used to be a time where our group were in an area next to another group who had a regular weekly phone conf with a team in India which they did at their desk via speakerphone. After a few weeks and "quiet" words through the management chain they started to use a meeting room instead. A year or so later I vistied our Indian office and was amazed by how quiet it was ... no-one talked in the open plan area ... until one afternoon I heard a familiar voice coming over a speaker phone and I experienced the Indian end of the weekly call!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: No Speaker required

Actually, thinking about it, speaker phone is vital for our IP based phone system ... when you dial into a conferencing system and have to key in the conf number if you do it while using the handset the phone invariably sends the tones in a way where some of the digits get duplicated - if you do it on speakerphone mode then it works! So on reflection we definitely need speakerphone for about 5 secs when calling in to a conference call!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: a headset is of more benefit Re: No Speaker required

A headset is only of more benefit if it's mostly folk elsewhere doing the talking. If the plonker five desks away from you is doing most of the talking, it doesn't really matter whether it's speakerphone or headset. He has to shout anyway (maybe other folks on the call are in Baltimore or Bangalore?).

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Boffin

Pick up handset, dial number, speak...

And then put phone down.

That's all it needs. Whatever is behind the scenes is immaterial to the user. Doesn't matter if it routes through Mars, as long as that basic functionality is present. Bells and/or whistles? No thanks.

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Re: Pick up handset, dial number, speak...

I disagree. Here's a short list of the things that I find extremely useful from our VOIP handsets and PBX, which is Asterisk iirc:

1) a searchable directory of all internal users

2) log in/out, so I can use any phone in the building

3) being able to conference people in

4) follow me, so I can easily work from any location*

5) call logs

6) do not disturb

7) voicemail indicators and browsing

8) easily hooked in to our video conferencing suites

9) "internal users" now mean "anyone worldwide who works for us"

* Like right now, I'm sat in my front room, but my home phone will ring. If I don't answer that, my mobile rings. And when I'm done for the day, changing a single flag on my profile stops anything coming to me.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Pick up handset, dial number, speak...

My global corporate employers were doing 9 and a half out of 10 of those in Europe in the 1990s, without needing VoIP or any kind of posh handset. Just people with clue in charge of IT/telecom, who understood the value of productivity in the business. But sadly you can't always show productivity on a spreadsheet....

The half is because they didn't have the integrated worldwide phonebook, it was a standalone app in which employees could update their own entries (subject to authentication etc).

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WTF?

Re: Pick up handset, dial number, speak...

You had hot desking and call logs/directories on the handsets in the 90s without posh handsets? Clever.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Pick up handset, dial number, speak...

"You had hot desking on the handsets in the 90s without posh handsets? "

Yes we had hot desking in the 90s without posh phones, including transparent use of mobiles as an extension of the corporate phone system.

"You had directories on the handsets in the 90s without posh handsets? "

As I (thought I) said in the earlier reply, the global corporate phonebook was a separate standalone application running on the corporate desktop, not on the phone.

Can't remember whose PABXs facilitated all this (would Meridian make any sense?), but it was pretty decent stuff and yes the people setting it up were clever. Even more impressive as some of it still seems to be considered advanced maybe 20 years later???

Oh, and for those that mentioned cheap calls as an advantage of VoIP: cheap calls are something you get from your voice telecom provider when you look at alternatives to BT etc; you don't need VoIP just for cheap calls. Then again, Corporate Purchasing may like the feeling they get when BT tell them "as a valued customer, we've given you a 20% discount" (while still costing the company far more than the real competition).

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In the pre-VoIP days, PABX manufacturers made their money from the line cards on their systems. (2K upwards for a card which was just a 32-channel 8KHz ADC ? WTF !) And if you wanted a phone which had a basic menu display (so you didn't have to remember cryptic codes to activate features) the digital line card cost even more. Then there was the price of the digital handsets themselves.

Now, in the era of SIP VoIP, manufacturers realise that this revenue stream is under threat. You don't need specialist hardware to run a phone system, except maybe to interface to traditional telephoney (ISDN, POTS) All they're selling you is software (Especially the management side of it). So they need to lock you in to their ecossystem. "Of course you can use a third party SIP phone: But the license to configure it onto our system will cost twice the license for one of our phones (Which cost twice the price of your cheap SIP phone). Oh, you want us to talk real SIP, not our special version that only our products support...?"

Telephoney manufacturers are in real danger of shooting themselves in the foot. A Windows/Android/iPhone smartphone (OK, not the most expensive ones) can be had for less then the higher end corporate VoIP handsets, does a darn sight more and gives the user the street cred of having a fancy smart phone rather than a bland corporate phone. Mobile companies are also offering quite interesting tariff deals now (free line rental and free calls between mobiles on your corporate contract) OK, so coverage can be a problem, I agree. But with a mobile, *you* have no infrastructure to support. (Unless you buy some pico/femto cells to boast coverage - and they just plug into your IP LAN, so just another dumb endpoint)

But the bigger problem for PABX manufacturers is utilisation. People just don't seem to be using phones any more. Email, IM, Facebook/web & Skype are what a lot of people are using to communicate nowadays. If you're the Finance Director, and you walk around your building and see phones just gathering dust and not being used, you have to ask the tough question: Do we *need* an internal phone system ? It'll be a brave Finance Director who says "Let's not have a phone system" but I can see it happening in the future.

I've worked with phone systems for 20+ years, on systems in size from 20 to 20K end points. I can see the writting on the wall for my profession.

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Megaphone

Just give us voice quality

There are only two features that I demand from a modern phone, over and above it's 1950s equivalent:

- Caller ID

- HD voice

Amazingly, many companies still don't bother sending out the true caller ID; at best you get the ID of the reception desk. In this day and age it's inexcusable.

As for voice quality: In the last two companies I worked for, the phones themselves were perfectly capable of supporting HD voice, but the option hadn't been activated at the switchboard / server level. Why manufacturers don't enable it by default is beyond me. They're deliberately making their own products look bad.

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Re: Just give us voice quality

As for voice quality: In the last two companies I worked for, the phones themselves were perfectly capable of supporting HD voice, but the option hadn't been activated at the switchboard / server level. Why manufacturers don't enable it by default is beyond me.

The simple answer is perception. People expect phone calls to sound a particular way. If it doesn't, it's wrong. How do I know ? I switched on HD audio on a phone system I manage. The number of complaints we had from people saying the phones sounded "wrong" was amazing. It was almost enough for me to switch it off.

The other issue, though, is transcoding. If your internal phones use the same CODEC as your PSTN provider (G.711) then there is never any transcoding to do, and your audio can just flow easily everywhere. If you have some devices supporting G.728 (or some other HD CODEC) and some only G.711, then either endpoints have to be capable of changing codec mid-call (e.g. if you perform a transfer) or some box in the middle somewhere transcoding between G.728 and G.711. Yes, I know, in theory it should work. But it doesn't. Trust me. Been there. Done that. Got the scars.

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Re: Just give us voice quality

You will find that the decision to not send the full Caller ID is a deliberate policy decision and relates to having external people call through a defined route rather than direct to a desk. If the person at that desk chooses to hand out their direct number then that is fine but to be able to monitor call handling you want it coming through set routes.

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Re: Just give us voice quality

Even more important if the company has a setup with 2 or 3 support layers. If Olav Officedrohne had the developers number than he would use that. After all Olav and his problems are IMPORTANT! as is Olav.

Well, actually the PFY on 1st level support can handle them while still half-drugged from his trip to the Netherlands and that's where they end up since our caller-id system (and our error tracking system!) do NOT give developer numbers, email etc.

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Internal use ...

For internal use within our organization I find that they have two really nice uses:

You get a nice human name for the caller ID, along with their digital business card so you know what team they work for. Hardly rocket science, but it's nice to have in an organization of a few thousand employees and you don't know everyone.

We can now move desk simply by unplugging all of our crap from the network and plugging it in at the destination. Provided you plug the phone into the network socket with PoE support it all works, and your number migrates without the IT team doing anything. On the old analogue system desk moves were a real pain in the proverbial, especially when moving a whole team - often a few hours without phone, etc. Desk moves are now much more casual and less needing military co-ordination to make sure they run smoothly.

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Re: Internal use ...

We have old Cisco IP phones and those are the only two features I have seen to make them "better" than the POTS they replaced:

Caller ID (a name, not just number) + call history (handy for re-dial).

The phone's ID/number moves with the phone, not the socket its plugged in to.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Internal use ...

We have NEW Cisco phones. I think their real world acquisition cost is about $420. We use 2% of the features.

Ten years ago I could get remote access to voice mail. No-one here can tell me how to do that. The Cisco manual doesn't mention it, probably because it has nothing to do with the handset. You could do the equivalent with the software handset, which I also wouldn't know how to use, but there is a simpler option: the Cisco gets forwarded to the mobile and forgotten.

Make that 1%.

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Anonymous Coward

And affordable CTI, Fuggedaboutdit

In the early 90's I programmed a modem to dial numbers for me, drop out of circuit and let me talk to the person on the other end through my handset.

You've got their phone number in your database, why can't you just point at it and get it dialed? Because it would either take an investment half the size of a bank bailout or a training course to teach someone how to plug in the board in the "approved" manner.

My last go round with one of these was a system for an office in the Midlands whose phones were administered in Texas. It took 3 days to generate a password for the phone management system. The job that creates them (in SQL Server) was running on a user ID of a member of staff who had just left. User ID shut down, process dies (telling NO ONE) and once again MS has fucked me.

Hard to believe this is the 2nd decade of the 21st century.

And note this does lock you into an ecosystem. But it's Apples, not Nortel, Mitel, Cisco or anyone else.

So nothing to worry about there, right?

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Go

Re: And affordable CTI, Fuggedaboutdit

Cisco have (or had, it's been 2 years now...) a TAPI driver for Windows. Install it, supply with your phone userID and password, and those modem dial commands now drive the VOIP phone.

Then you can dial direct from Outlook, etc just as you describe. There was no extra licence over the one already there for the phone. There's a little clunkyness in places dud to pretending to be a modem, etc, but it was perfectly useable.

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Silver badge

Minimal features

As far as I'm concerned, the phone should have a few basic features - ability to call, ability to receive calls, a phone book, caller ID display, and some indicators for key line status.

That's about it. Everything else is cruft.

Which is why we used simple phones here when we deployed Asterisk+FreePBX 6 years ago. Been running Grandstream GXP-2000s. Yes, they have an issue with gain being linked for mic and volume, but they work fine other than that.

When we're due for a replacement in a couple of years, we'll probably look at Grandstream again.

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Meh

History....

It seems to me that the issue was the old "convergence" chestnut. Comms/Telecoms people knew all about the weird, wonderful and most of all, unique, world of telephony with its specialist cards, cabling and who knows what else. It was proprietary heaven Then the world woke up and realised that telephony could be delivered similarly to general purpose computing and that it needn't be proprietary at all, leading to the possibilities of IP telephony. That led the telecoms world into the "discovery" of that their switches could function as general purpose servers, which they then invented in the image of their old proprietary model. No-one was going to fall for that one just as they were reaping the benefits of commoditisation. To be fair, some horror stories were also possible when general IT service delivery people tried to deliver the robustness of old pone switches, and made their own mistakes along the way.

So to me, it's partly timing, partly an aspect of re-invention, resulting in over-marketing of shiny-thing-of-the-month. What people really wanted from a phone all along was a dial tone.

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Anonymous Coward

Dumb is fine

A half decent conferencing system OTOH could save some businesses a small fortune. For this, IP is the way to go.

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Silver badge

Just one feature

I want a desk phone that can detect when nobody is at the desk, and won't ring ... incessantly ... until someone else gets up, disconnects the call and either unplugs the phone from it's socket (without telling the desk's absent occupant - anger ensues) or sticks it in a drawer.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Just one feature

"I want a desk phone that can detect when nobody is at the desk, and won't ring ... incessantly "

I believe that feature is called "competent people management" but it also needs to be combined with appropriate motivation (£££) for the wageslaves to ensure that their phones are forwarded to somewhere sensible when they leave their desk. In some cases, adequate training may also be a pre-requisite.

Well, I can dream, can't I.

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I have always wished for my computer to be as easy to use as my telephone; my wish has come true because I can no longer figure out how to use my telephone. - Bjarne Stroustrup (1950- )

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Hotdesking

Great when you can hotdesk and log on off the phone with your unique ID. Not so great when the CTI / presence software behind it is an antiquated pig and still has your username associated with yoru old phone's MAC address and needs a manual reset, despite the promises.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Hotdesking

Most of this company is hotdesked (although we're not). I've never been issued with a uid, although my name appears over the internal cli, so it must be somewhere. It's certainly not used as everyone is issued a mobile and people just mobex everything.

The one good thing is if you're not in a hotdesked office then moving desks etc is a piece of piss because nobody has to dick around re-patching the extensions.

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Anonymous Coward

Dumb as but SIP for the future

So my company has rolled out pretty dump IP phones across the UK recently. We can log in/out and hunt etc but the phones themselves are pretty basic and it makes sense. We're progressively rolling out a SIP service too which is highly integrated with our internal instant messaging client and internal employee directory. I can use the softphone on my laptop (even via VPN), use my mobile/cell phone when on the company's wifi, redirect to internal phones or my mobile/cell (using my internal short number).

I was skeptical at first about the need for this whole setup but that was when I was a stationary developer - as a mobile consultant this makes so much more sense as I jump around our offices and those of our clients.

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What I really want is the company to host a business number and forward it to my mobile.

Maybe a dual-sim phone with the corporate acting as a mobile telco...

Add a cached local addressbook.

Perhaps just a bluetooth link to PSTN, but I have the feeling I might accidentally walk out of range at a bad time.

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Anonymous Coward

I have an IP phone on my desk.

It has a lot of buttons with indecipherable icons on them that don't seem to do anything when I get curious enough to press them.

The most advanced feature I use is call forward, which old pabx's can do anyway; the inbuilt phonebook is handy too as I only phone a handful of people.

I'd still be happy enough to have no phone, if only to stop arseholes who think it's acceptable to send an email and then immediately call you up.

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Re: I have an IP phone on my desk.

Damn, I thought it was only my boss who rang and asked "did you get the e-mail I sent you".

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IP phones are expensive

Think about that expensive bit of gadgetry that is sitting on your desk. No,not the PC, i mean the phone.

A simple analogue phone is cheep and easy to replace should the worst happen (like a stray coffee).

Analogue phones can even be smart and show information such as caller ID (even names against internal extensions).

But other phones cost a packet. Those big networked IP phones can cost over £400 and most of the extra features are never used.

If you set up your office, you get a handful of phone lines, a hand full of numbers, a phone hub with enough ports to cover every desk and enough cheep phones to sit on even the unused desks.

If you set up your system with IP phones, its almost the same, but you leave the empty desks phoneless as you don't want to shell out that much money at the very start of your venture.

Smart desk phones a good investment? Not really in my book.

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Re: IP phones are expensive

I agree. I have an analogue 'phone, and I have never thought "I wish this could..." at any point. It transfers calls, forwards to any number (mobile for example), has a little voicemail notification light/button, does caller display, and has a reasonable address book. Sure I had to spend an hour setting up the address book and writing on a piece of paper who was on what key, hardly any downside.

I think it has a speaker, but as another notes above it's not cricket to use such in an open plan office, and most of us drones are open plan these days.

I think it's about 200 years old*, so as an investment it was pretty good.

Sometimes less really is more.

*hyperbole, obviously.

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Conferencing

The last office I worked in used desktop-sharing software (Bridgit and something else) that integrated nicely with the desktop phones. You could join a conference on the computer and get it to call your phone, whereupon it would show who was dialled-in and who was talking.

The audio quality was obviously too good, though, because most cofnerences were punctuated by the manager saying "Somebody's breathing into the phone - please mute it!".

Of course the handsets were covered in buttons with no discernible function, but that's the way handsets always are. How many home phones have buttons that seem to assume everybody has a PABX?

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