Android Desk VoIP/SIP Phones:  4 Future Use Cases

May 3, 2016

Historically used as a cost-saving measure, rather than being selected for its positive capabilities, manufacturers and Service Providers have — for the most part — failed to seriously market or capitalize on Android’s unique capabilities as desk-phone firmware.  This may be starting to change, however, as some phones, like Jablocom’s Raven, are explicitly marketed as ‘smart’ desk phones, and other manufacturers (including Panasonic) shift their future SIP phones over to Android.  Although not likely to be a game changer for manufacturers hoping to boost flagging sales, Android desk phones nevertheless provide interesting functionality and possibilities for business users, and Service Providers adopting them as CPE should be aware of and market these capabilities going forward.

Initially presented as high-end, beautiful, touch-screen devices, VoIP/SIP desk phones using Android as the operating system started appearing on the market in the early 2010s.  In recent years a new wave of Android models has emerged, with releases of the phones becoming more regular and in some cases emerging as the flagship lines for their manufacturers (see Fanvil and Jablocom).  These phones incorporate many of the features of a smartphone (including browser support) and are typically the highest-end and most expensive models offered by the manufacturer.  This “second generation” of phones, and their potential use-cases and applications for VoIP Service Providers, will be discussed below.

That phone makers would adopt Android for its touchscreen and video capability is hardly surprising – it is simpler and easier to modify existing, highly robust phone software and piggyback off of the enormous Android developer community than it is to develop similar software from the ground up.  This is particularly true for smaller manufacturers whose resources are limited, and historically we do indeed see Android phones appearing most commonly on the line-ups of companies that occupy the mid to low range of the price/quality spectrum.  As more manufacturers become aware of Android’s potential for desk phones, however, its adoption will spread (and indeed, is already spreading), and we will see the following use cases marketed more and more:

Video Calling and Conferencing

The expansion of VoIP at the expense of traditional phone service has been old news for a decade, as has the growth of IP video calling in the private sphere (Skype’s rapid rise to dominance in international calling is a case in point).  However, there has been no parallel growth of video calling in business communications despite the wide spread of IP telephony among business end users.  As bandwidth gets cheaper and more reliable, however, and advancements in compression make video calling more stable, business’s traditional antipathy to low-level video calling (as opposed to conference calling with dedicated hardware and networks) may erode.

Desk phone manufacturers are anticipating the growth of video communications in the business context, and are attempting to position their devices (which typically make use of much stabler wired as opposed to wifi connection) as the ideal medium.  By building cameras into their hardware and using Android (thus using video application development in the Android ecosystem) manufacturers can position their devices as invaluable terminals for inter-office video communication, with “plug and play” video capability, since their video-calling hardware and software is integrated into every device out of the box – a significant advantage over PC workstations with webcams.

Cloud UC Rollouts

Perhaps — from the perspective of VoIP Service Providers at least — the most interesting argument for Android for desk phones is found in the rollout of Hosted UC services, and Hosted PBX in particular.  Most Hosted telecom systems are premised upon simplicity and ease of installation and operation.  As Paul Desmond at the UC Buyer writes, “to the extent that companies sign on with cloud services to reduce the complexity inherent in providing the services on premise, a desktop phone that complements the service makes sense.”  In other words, a business buying a service for its simplicity is likely to opt for the end-point device that’s easiest to install and maintain, and in the context of our industry that is a SIP desk phone.  In contrast to the potential complexity of soft-clients from an IT perspective, a SIP desk phone is, literally, plug and play.

Desmond is not alone in his support for this theory – according to Frost & Sullivan’s Mohamed Alaa Saayed, phones meant for the Cloud UC space are set to make up an increasing share of IP desk phone sales (from 22% of total sales in 2014 to 55% in 2021).  Furthermore, from the perspective of the end-user company (and since it is ultimately the end-user companies that are making the capital investment in the equipment) it makes more sense to purchase Android desk phones as part of a Cloud UC as-a-service deployment, rather than phones with proprietary firmware locked the existing service provider.

Supercharger of Unified Collaboration and Productivity Integration

Android SIP desk phones occupy a unique and potentially valuable space between the computer desktop, the mobile phone, and the traditional PBX integrated handset.  With access to contacts syncing traditionally associated with PC based information managers, the Android desk phone can quickly and painlessly integrate with the office worker’s contacts and business flows.  However, since it is Android, the phone also automatically syncs contacts, apps, and data from the user’s profile in the Google ecosystem.  Furthermore, the Google Play store grants the phone automatic access to a whole host of mobile clients for business productivity suites, not to mention one-step integration into existing hosted business communications platforms like Skype for Business, all the while remaining tightly integrated into the office’s traditional PBX structure.  In short, the Android desk phone sits at the center of the venn diagram of the office worker’s communications and productivity worlds: the Google ecosystem with Android, the information management and productivity suites of the desktop, and the familiar, efficient voice communications of the PBX phone system, and has the potential to serve as a hub for all three.

The Mobile PBX

A final interesting potential use case for the Android desk phone may lie in the development of hosted PBX on mobile networks.  A few manufacturers (see again Jablocom’s Raven) are incorporating features (SIM card and mobile network support in particular) that seem to anticipate the development of Mobile first PBX.  With Mobile First PBX — a system where the Hosted PBX is housed on the mobile platform — it would make sense to facilitate the desk phone’s tight integration into the the PBX with these mobile attributes.  By anticipating and preparing for these developments, manufacturers could place themselves in an ideal position to capitalize should Mobile First PBX take off in the near future.

Conclusion

For the moment, Android desk phones are something of a novelty – beautiful and interesting, but functionally situated in a strange space between the mobile phone and the computer desktop.  However, as manufacturers get wise to the potential value of Android in the desk phone context, we will see these devices marketed — and used — more and more in the ways described above.  Service Providers — especially those involved in the provisioning of CPE — would do well to understand and stay abreast of these developments.

Posted Under:VoIP Logic Blog