When people talk about endpoint modernization, everyone assumes that we’re referring to the elimination of hard physical phones. My response to that is a big MAYBE! If you’re telling me that you’re eliminating hardphones to enable a collaborative architecture that more easily supports a remote and mobile-first user-base, then you had me at hello. But sadly, the response I usually get is “We’re looking to cut costs.” And there, you lost me. I always suggest you recheck your math.
By itself, softphones are not always cheaper than hardphones. Once you look at everything needed to support that, costs start looking pretty equal. One look at the total cost of ownership of a hardphone versus that of a good quality wireless headset and the hardphone will almost always be cheaper. I continue to find that most customers still have users that prefer hardphones when they’re sitting at a desk all day. At ConvergeOne, we let our users decide. Do they want a hardphone, a softphone, or both? As I write this, I just looked at registered, logged-in endpoints on our own Avaya Aura system. It’s roughly a 5 to 1 ratio of hardphones to softphones. And of those softphone users, a third of them ONLY use a softphone. The other two-thirds use both a softphone and a hardphone, as a connected, integrated ecosystem of endpoints (which we’ll talk about more). My point is that endpoints (both hard and soft) have clearly changed over the last several years, but they haven’t gone away. So, they are a piece of a solution not to be overlooked.
What do users expect from a modern endpoint? Just delivering dial-tone is not going to cut it. Expectations are far too high. Consumer apps and mobile devices have raised the bar. Let’s talk about what those expectations are. Below is a list that Adam Born (from our Cisco Practice) and I (representing our Avaya Practice) brainstormed from our experiences with our collective customers.
Ease of Use
It kind of goes without saying, but an endpoint (hard or soft) should be easy to use, intuitive, and for softphones, have an appropriately consistent user interface across different platforms and operating systems (e.g., Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android). Clearly, some endpoints will have more features than others to be able to offer different price points, but even for softphones, there might be some slight variations in need based on mobile versus desktop-based clients.
Network Location Agnostic (VPN-less Support)
We all know the use of VPN as a way of protecting a device is being replaced by stronger, application-based security with things like TLS for transport and SAML for Authentication. No one has ever said “Hey, I think I’m going to get a call from Linda, I better launch my VPN.” This application-based security approach has made it incredibly easy for applications to exist securely ANYWHERE. When you go into it with a zero-trust approach, you assume, and plan for, worst-case scenario. A remote or mobile user can now be just as secure as someone sitting in the office at their desk. This approach actually makes it MORE secure, as I still see far too many customers who don’t take security seriously enough when it comes to apps and devices deployed inside of their enterprise. At ConvergeOne, our communication endpoints (hard or soft) work exactly the same, and are equally secure, whether our users are inside an office, at home, at their cabin, at a hotel, or in their car.
Automated Provisioning + Elimination of “Pre-Staging”
Deploying phones in an office has always been pretty easy. We can use things like DHCP scope options to provide key configuration data to the endpoints as they boot up, even for the very first time. But back in the old days, if you were going to deploy a bunch of physical phones to REMOTE users, to make the process easier, you’d pre-stage the phones, booting them up in the office first, updating the firmware, adding specific configuration settings, etc., and then you’d then ship it out—very painful. Now, we can bulk pre-enroll endpoints by “claiming” them in applicable tools. When that phone gets shipped to the user, never-touched-by-IT, the phone shows up at their house, the phone figures out that they don’t have their DHCP set up to give it what it needs, the phone can now ask a centralized provisioning server who it belongs to and what its configuration settings should be. It will automatically update its firmware and ask the user for their personal credentials, letting them start using it immediately. So much easier!
Enterprise Directory and Centralized Contact Storage
All endpoints should have access to the same type of contacts, appropriate for that device or application. Enterprise directories are a must. But access to personal contacts should be made available, as well, and tagged “favorites” should be able to be shared and synced across all your devices. Knowing as much about your favorite contacts’ availability as possible is also important. Current-state “Presence” is table stakes. Some vendors can even offer future availability by converting calendar events into presence events. Knowing that Larry is “Busy” is good. Knowing that Larry is “Busy until 11:30 a.m.” is even better.
Wideband Audio (G.722, OPUS, etc.)
A lot of customers think that cell phones are still lowering the bar for voice quality, enabling them to use highly compressed audio codecs like G.729 or even G.723. But the reality is that modern cell phones use VoLTE (Voice over LTE) and have enabled HD, wide-band audio. So, not only haven’t cell phones lowered the bar—they’ve actually raised it considerably. The once-idolized gold standard of voice, the PSTN, with its “toll-quality voice” pales in comparison to modern HD audio codecs like G.722 and OPUS that you find on modern endpoints and modern collaboration solutions. The PSTN sounds horrible in comparison. If you think “dialing” into an audio bridge via the 800 number, or having the audio bridge call you over the PSTN, will give you the best audio quality, think again.
Bluetooth/USB for Broader Headset Support (and BYOH)
Most modern endpoints have the ability (or option to add the ability) to support Bluetooth and/or USB. USB is becoming the popular option for headsets. It’s more universal than the proprietary connectivity of the old days. But, Bluetooth is introducing a new trend. For the first time, we’re seeing interest in Bring Your Own Headset (BYOH). Yes, I invented the term (proven by a really quick, non-exhaustive google search). BYOH is becoming a thing. A lot of people have already invested in headsets, airpods, and headphones they prefer. Especially with COVID, more people are saying, “Ummm yeah, can I just use my own? I know where it’s been.” Adding Bluetooth and USB to a hardphone gives end users so much more flexibility in choosing a headset they prefer.
Wi-Fi Support for Home Office Workers
If you used to work in an office and were sent home to work during COVID, there’s a really good chance that you’re not working in a home “office.” You’re probably in a spare bedroom, the basement, the garage, the living room, or the kitchen table. There’s also a really good chance that you don’t have any Ethernet cables run to those locations. The introduction of Wi-Fi-connected hardphones has given remote workers a tremendous amount of flexibility in where and how they work. And since we already know a lot of business don’t plan on EVER bringing 100% of their employees back into an office, this remote worker concept is here to stay and will continue to need to be supported.
Comprehensive Telephony Features
We find that a lot of customers who attempt to transition away from a traditional communication platform never make it all the way. They find that there are usually groups of users that depend on that traditional communication workflow and features. I will initially hear customers say, “Yeah, we just don’t use all of those features,” but then they come back later saying, “Well, my team didn’t use all of those features, but it looks like we actually have some groups that do.” Exactly what those features are usually varies from company to company, or department to department, or worker type to worker type. But every one of those advanced features were created because someone at some point needed it, and it’s rarely about the “buttons” programmed on the phones. The endpoints are still expected to play a role in those features.
Highly Secure (TLS 1.2, support for 802.1x Client Certs, SAML, etc.)
As mentioned initially, with VPN-less technology, there is a new focus on alternative ways to secure an endpoint. Zero Trust is a popular concept, but it’s made up of a lot of technologies. Endpoints, both hard and soft, support more of these technologies than ever before. It starts with strong authentication, support for Multi-Factor Authentication (usually via SAML), and a policy of end-to-end encryption. Some of these technologies are more applicable to different types of devices and the location of those devices. TLS, or Trusted Layer Security is a given. It has become the de-facto standard for identity and encryption on these types of devices. The required version of TLS certainly changes over time. TLS 1.0 and 1.1 are highly frowned upon now and will send red flags upon a security audit, forcing deprecation of anything other than 1.2. So, keeping up with the current security standard often means staying current with your devices' firmware and even hardware.
Ecosystem Integration (Click-to-call, 3PCC, Room/Huddle Integration)
One of the most important things about today’s modern endpoints is that you don’t have to view them as individual islands of communication. They are part of an ecosystem. Admittedly, we do find that this ecosystem is usually contained within a specific vendor’s ecosystem. So, don’t expect that ecosystem to offer much vendor interoperability. But within that vendor ecosystem, things get pretty good. That specific vendor assumes that users will have multiples of devices and the expectation should be that switching between them is seamless and functionally feature-rich. Maybe that’s having contacts and presence centralized and synced across a user’s devices, or maybe it’s launching a call from a hardphone by clicking a call button in Outlook via a softphone. Maybe it’s the ability to hand off from a mobile app to a desktop app, to a hardphone, or to even a huddle room device, or maybe it’s having proximity awareness to automate that handoff. There are a lot of options here that can actually vary greatly between vendors, but they all have their own secret sauce to make for some compelling use cases.
Flexible Deployment Options (On-Premises, Hosted, Cloud)
Lastly, a very interesting expectation we’re looking at is preservation of investments when migrating between various deployment models. We know that a lot more customers today than yesterday are looking at changing the way they purchase and consume communication services. Most vendors have flexible options for using modern endpoints in any of those deployment models. Whether it’s a traditional on-premises solution, a private hosted environment, or fully born-in-the-cloud, customers are in some phase of their migration. Some are just thinking about it. But others are planning for and doing it. Knowing that not everyone wants a softphone, they want to know what their options are for traditional hardphones.
The modernization that we’ve already talked about with VPN-less connectivity and strong security has actually made this easy to address. These modern endpoints can ALREADY be deployed anywhere. When choosing different consumption models, but staying with a specific vendor, there’s not much to it. Some vendors endpoints can actually be told to dumb themselves down to the basic SIPPING-19 standard associated the core, non-proprietary capabilities of the SIP protocol itself, making them immediately interoperable with other vendors. Granted, you will probably lose a lot of the cool capabilities we’ve talked about here, but it can be a pretty power story for investment protection.
The bottom line is that there are still absolutely cool, innovative things happening in the world of communication endpoints. When we look at how much they are still in use today, endpoint modernization shouldn’t be ignored or overlooked. They are an important component to the overall collaboration ecosystem offered by almost every vendor in our industry. They seem to be getting less expensive every day and, at the same time, are offering more and more capabilities.
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