Does the Smartphone Era Make IP Phone Services Irrelevant?

February 18, 2012

by John Welsh (samplefive)

A number of years ago, one talking point when selling Cisco IP Telephony solutions was to mention IP phone services. These are the XML based applications that can run from the screen of the phone. While the idea of applications running from your phone at the time was new and caused a lot of oohs and ahhs during demonstration, my personal experience was that very few of the people that deployed Cisco phone systems also deployed XML phone services with them. I heard several IT directors say things like, “our users want a phone, they’ll never use an application on the phone, it just doesn’t make sense to them”. This was new territory for a lot of companies. While there were plenty of people using Blackberries and Palm Treos, the idea of applications other than contacts and e-mail running on your phone was not really a mainstream idea yet. While there were many compelling use cases for the technology, it just didn’t seem to catch on as widely as I thought it might.

Fast forward several years and all sorts of people are using applications on their phones. Some of the least technical people that I know have either an Android or iPhone device. The same people who have difficulty with their PC can launch apps from their phone with no issues. In fact, I know many people who use the apps on their phones far more than they use apps on their computers. With technology trending this way, one might think that applications on Cisco IP Phones would be exploding. While others may have different experiences, from what I have seen the rough percentage of people that use these XML based services is roughly the same as the pre-smartphone area.

So why is it that when Apple is close to having it’s 25,000,000,000th (that’s 25 billion) app downloaded that XML IP phone services seem to remain about as popular as they were before? Is it because of the shiny touch screen applications that are available on smartphones compared to a majority of greyscale screens on Cisco phones (though there are color screen options)? Maybe. Is it because there isn’t a QWERTY keyboard for text entry on a Cisco phone? Possibly. Is it because the smartphone is mobile while your Cisco phone is largly stationary at your desk? I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I think that all of those reasons are why smartphone apps are more popular than XML apps, but I don’t think they are the reason that XML phone services haven’t grown as much as they could have. I think that the main reason is awareness of what is possible and understanding that they are great additions to your phone system.

As you can tell from what I wrote above, the answer is no, the smartphone era doesn’t make IP Phone Services irrelevant. Now I’ll go through some specific use cases where I have seen them excel.

Rapidly Deploy Applications

Because it is so easy to bulk deploy XML phone services to Cisco phones, you can quickly roll out access to a business system without even having to go to a user’s desk. While the screen and interface may not be ideal for all of your applications, there is definite value to having certain things able to deploy in an instant, whether for primary or backup use. Here’s a couple of items I have seen for rapid deployment of applications to the phones:

  • Unified Contact Center IP Phone Agent. Cisco provides this XML application as part of the UCCX suite and I have deployed it in a couple of different instances. If you have a large workforce of call center agents that don’t have computers (I have seen this in Elections offices where the call center is just there to answer questions from citizens and not take any data) or if you have an emergency where your primary call center is no longer available and you need to immediately deploy new agents while you are still getting their PCs set up this service is a great fit. I’ve even seen customers use this when they didn’t have computers that met the requirements for running the desktop agent.
  • Help Desk Access. A number of years ago I wrote a custom application (more on that later) for IP phones to tap into the SQL database of the help desk software that the company I worked for used. I did this because we had a number of campuses that interns went between. They didn’t have laptops to take with them, but I wanted them to be able to check their open tickets at the site they were at before they left. A simple log in to any phone (because we rolled it out to every phone in the organization) and they could see what open tickets they had and close out the ticket they had just done (I didn’t add resolution description to it, just the option to close it. They could add a description when they got back to the office).
  • Time Cards. I almost didn’t mention this because this is one of the IP Phone services that has been out there for awhile and talked about. There are many different third parties that can provide a time card application that will hook into your current time tracking software and then employees can clock in from anywhere in the organization.

Situational Awareness

I recently shared a booth with IPCelerate at a trade show focused on Education. One of the key things going on in today’s schools is an emphasis on physical security. With the XML services that IPCelerate brings to the table, you can tap into your surveillance cameras on your phone if a security situation arises. Rather than walking into a situation blind or having to find a computer to bring up the camera feed, you use a phone from a nearby classroom and bring up a video feed to see what is going on.

This is one of those features that makes buying color screen phones make sense. Having a color image pop up on the screen of your phone that auto-refreshes every 5 seconds really helps to tie things together from a surveillance perspective.

Custom Applications for Your Data

One of the nice benefits of XML services for IP phones is that it is very easy to get started with creating them. To do simple text displaying applications you can be up in a few minutes. For more complicated services, Cisco has a Software Development Kit that can give you guidance to get to where you want. If you have any dynamic web developing skills, you can pair this with the XML laid out in the SDK and create useful dynamic IP phone services for your organization.

I’ve mentioned one custom service that I did earlier in this post to interface with a helpdesk application, but some of my favorite uses for custom apps are to provide employees with important company information. Namely information about HR policies, maybe a company locations lookup, or any number of uses. The point to this is that while you may be able to look up this information on your computer, having it on your phone just a couple of button pushes away could make employees lives easier and reduce the number of calls to some departments.

With regards to custom applications, the one that I have probably most deployed is a holiday calendar for companies. I have found over the years that many people don’t know what days off their company has scheduled. While they have a document somewhere in the organization, employees don’t always know where that document is and end up calling HR to find out if they have Monday or Friday off when a holiday falls on a weekend.

With all that being said, are XML IP Phone Services for every application you have in your organization? Absolutely not. In the past, I remember hearing that the phone on your desk was like a little computer. While those days are closer with VXI, I don’t think the 7960 series phone will be taking over e-mail and word processing anytime soon. Despite that, the processing capabilities of the XML parser built into most of Cisco’s phones can be a powerful tool to streamline processes and get functionality out to locations where computers just aren’t available.

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