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And The Winner Is: IP Phone or Desktop?

LAS VEGAS -- As the world moves to an all-IP infrastructure for both voice and data, the role of the traditional desktop phone may well be changing.

In a standing-room-only session here at Interop, representatives from Avaya, Cisco and Microsoft debated the future of the phone, which is, after all, now just another IP endpoint.

Geoff Baird, vice president and general manager of appliances, mobility and small systems at Avaya, noted that the world of voice has changed considerably.

"Originally we had a phone and it worked with a single line," he said. "Now we've moved from analog to digital, and the world of work itself has changed."

Microsoft, which is a relative newcomer to the world of voice, isn't entering the space half heartedly.

Jeff Finan, general manager of the unified communications group at Microsoft, told the audience all about his company's voice strategy, which includes hardware compatibility with such industry vendors as Avaya and Cisco.

"The key pain point we hear about is that there are too many communication silos; we all go to voicemail too much," Finan said.

Microsoft's new Office Communicator 2007 is its answer to the problem. It includes rich presence status that enables a user to contact a person with software-powered VoIP.

Thanks to Microsoft vendor interoperability partnerships, Finan noted that deploying Microsoft's voice solution isn't a rip and replace for enterprises since it can be deployed alongside existing PBX infrastructures.

IP phones, which sit at the crux of VoIP-based communications, are still a rapidly growing marketplace that has yet to be fully saturated.

According to the panel moderator, analyst Allan Sulkin of TEQConsult Group, it won't be until 2009 when 50 percent of all enterprise phone shipments will be for IP phones. He said the traditional desk phone won't go away, and PC-based soft phones won't replace hardware-based IP phones.

But IP phones aren't about to lead to the disappearance of desktop applications, either.

Avaya's Baird noted that Avaya doesn't see people running applications on the phones as much as Avaya had expected. As SIP further develops and matures, Baird said he expects it will be easier to develop and integrate phone-based applications with SIP.

Cullen Jennings, distinguished engineer at Cisco, told the audience that the types of applications that work on the phone can only be applications that will work with the small screen and don't require a keyboard.

Jennings also noted that most phones in enterprise settings sit near a PC.

"Applications on the phone work where the phone doesn't sit next to the PC," Jennings said. "There are a lot of very vertical applications and that's what will take off."

However, Finan noted that Microsoft's voice strategy isn't PC-centric.

"Really we see a variety of form factors," he said. "The desk phone isn't going away anytime soon."

That said, with monitors getting bigger and cheaper, Finan argued that if there is a desk phone and then a computer next to it, why would someone look at the small-screen real estate of a phone?

Avaya's Baird countered that he's a huge PC user, but the IP phone is going to evolve in how it fits into the desk ecosystem.

"We're not trying to replace screen real estate," Baird said. "It's about being practical. It's about making it work together. And besides your PC may not be switched on."