The corporate desk phone

The one device on my desk that hasn’t changed significantly in 50 years is the desk phone. My phone happens to be an Avaya VoIP SIP phone but I still can only utilize it as if it was a dumb device – that is, pick up the receiver and start dialing- or be alerted of incoming calls and then pick up the receiver to see who it might be. There is no direct connectivity between my desktop computer – or the cloud - and my phone. Now, before I pose the question as to why on earth do we still need desk phones, let’s look at the wonderful world of such phones and why it is that they are behind the technology curve.

Making calls

Keypads are a wonderful thing but I never understood why we needed a 3x4 matrix if we only have 10 digits. I guess that isolated ‘0’ at the bottom needed some companion and that’s why the ‘*’ and the ‘#’ were introduced. Such things will never confuse most people (only me) and it certainly is progress that we moved away from the rotary dial. But removing this simple mechanism opened up a can of buttons. All of a sudden the phone designers had an urge to add buttons – all sorts of buttons apparently. For example, it’s a good thing that my desk phone let’s me store often used phone numbers in specially designated buttons – this is important because phone numbers never change and so when I store a number, it’s basically as if I had chiseled it into stone myself. That is of course nonsense but the analogy is correct: it would be easier to carve that number into the polymer coating of my desk phone than trying to figure out how to store it. But that would defeat the purpose of these specially designated buttons that allow you to make changes once that number is stored (if only I knew how). I think I have only once and very early in my career made use of those buttons to store someone’s number but abandoned it shortly thereafter, frankly, because there is no need for it. The important numbers you always know (friends, family) and they happen to change often enough that I don’t bother storing them – everything else you have to look up anyway and you’ll use it only a couple of times. Of course, if somehow magically these numbers would store themselves – or even better if something would allow you to instruct the phone to dial a particular number, say from your Outlook contacts or from your global web based directory, then that would be a real killer app! (yes, I know, crude plugins exist for that purpose)
Now here’s a fun anecdote: one of my first jobs at UBS was to write a query front end for the global directory (which was VMS based but had a TCP interface) on my then (and probably still) most favorite operating system platform called NeXTSTEP. The company also had a centralized ISDN phone network and so it was *very* easy to make a query to look up a number and then send information to the ISDN server to dial that number and ring a particular phone. It was telephony in the cloud and the year was 1993. Similar functionality exists today in the consumer space (Skype, Google Voice etc.) and of course, every cell phone can do that nowadays. But it is beyond me why this is difficult to do for large companies when all the ingredients, such as VoIP, are already in place.

Receiving Calls

The receiver is another marvel of advanced technology – what I like most about it, is the unwinding of that spiral cable that connects the receiver to the actual phone device. In the hundred or so years that we had this contraption, we have not figured out how to make a cable that doesn’t wind itself up. I’m sure there were probably a gazillion studies that looked at the problem – I can vividly picture it with propaganda movies from the 50’s where a bunch of scientists look at the receiver and start drawing all sorts of ear-torture devices to obliterate the problem. But in the end, it all failed – just like cockroaches, the spiral cable will be with us long after the nuclear Armageddon. On a personal note: I must have accidentally dropped that receiver several times in my professional (unprofessional?) life because of the unwieldy spiral cable (I’m clumsy) and when it’s really wound up, it can become potentially dangerous for coffee cups and the person sitting in front of the cup. I wonder why the phone companies never got sued over that.


First of all, why is it called voice mail? What I remember calling ‘listen to the answering machine’ became VoiceMail at some point. Of course, the functionality is nearly the same (recording someone’s message and listening to it later) but by its definition the voice mail system is fairly independent of the actual desk phone and also lives in the cloud. This is great because if it’s voice and mail then that means, I’ll get the voice message via mail –or rather email! Not! Instead, I have to press a ‘voicemail’ button on my phone and then enter cryptic codes (if I have not forgotten the password because the system forces me to change it every month) only to wade through an IVR (interactive voice response) dialogue that is more excruciatingly painful than burning at the stake. But the fun doesn’t stop there, so I have to listen to the message and in 99% of all cases, it’s someone telling me to call him or her back and that his or her number was 23#$2Ag5 .. err what? So I listen to the same message about 5 times before I’m able to piece together what the number should be. I do this in a very precise and systematic way by jotting down every single digit after my own voice recognition system can make sense of it – of course, when I finally call that number, it’s usually someone trying to sell me something.
The consumer space has not really solved this problem, except that they have improved tremendously by actually sending the ‘voice’ message via email and hence the only real voice mail solution is the one offered by Skype, Google, Vonage or every other VoIP provider in the consumer space. For the cell phone carriers this is actually a lucrative side business as it turns out, because each call costs. Apple of course saw this problem and resolved it once and for all with the iPhone where I can get the message on my phone – except that they haven’t really solved it, more like perpetuated into a new form of monstrosity, or the Frankenstein of voicemail. Google Voice is the only player that has figured out that in most cases I don’t want to listen to the message, so they translate it and then send me an email – of course, it’s hit and miss with the content which means I still end up listening to the message.
Mark my words: there is only one solution for voice mail: kill it!
There are countless more things that make me feel I’m living in the past when it comes to my desk phone – hence my original thought and posing of the question: why do we still need it? Let’s face it: 99% of my communication nowadays happens via email or instant messaging (even in large corporations we now have social networks and instant messaging). I only occasionally make a phone call when I really need to have someone on the phone because it’s urgent – or if I don’t have any other means to communicate with that person. Of course, emails can also backfire and one wonderful thing about the phone is that it doesn’t record what you say (or I hope it doesn’t) and a call is sometimes better than email because of one’s ability to express emotions – emoticons don’t really cut it in the workplace for that purpose. But mostly, I use my phone to attend conference calls – that seems to be the new killer app.
In summary, my desk phone is terribly underutilized (except for conference calls) – and has been for years. The proof is in Skype and the fact that I no longer have a landline at home. When I work from home, I use Skype to dial into conference calls. It’s free and I get to wear my headphones that can cost as little as 10$ (I would almost certainly guarantee if I called up Avaya right now and asked them what a receiver costs, I would probably get something in the range of USD $50 – $80). So the question then is, would the same model work at work? For me personally it would – or rather it already does today when I’m working from home. But there could be practical considerations such as the fact that if we used our desktop computers to make phone calls, it might burden the corporate LAN’s and WAN’s – especially when using across continents. But then again, there are plenty of VoIP providers that utilize your standard Internet connection and have been for years, so I can’t really believe that the corporate network would have bandwidth limitations. Or to look at the problem from the other side, the investments in the telephony system could also be used to beef up the corporate network – which one is more important in our Internet connected world?