The Future of the Phone: Understanding Unified Communications

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Many of my readers may remember the rotary phone. Oh yes, that beautiful piece of machinery that had heft, clarity of sound, and a comforting click, click, click as you dialed a number. In all those years, how much has changed? Let’s just say…those days are gone. The technology of today is sleek, stylish, and meant to “make life easier.” However, I often get puzzled looks from current and would be clients regarding the voice dilemma: What should we purchase? Which is right for us?

There is plenty of information out there but it often induces anxiety, and for good reason. The options available have become incredibly complex and confusing. I'm dedicating this post to helping provide some clarity for those seeking insight into implementing unified communications in their organization.

First, let's separate “voice system” from “voice service.” I like to describe voice service as the calls that come to and from your system. Traditionally, these were the voice lines from your telephone carrier. The voice system, on the other hand, is the equipment that is responsible for delivering voicemail, the extension on a phone handset, and internal features of a business phone.

With the introduction of hosted and now cloud services, it may seem like my approach to defining business voice is dated and no longer applicable. However, evaluating these new service approaches reveals that this is not the case. It isn't that the technology has changed, it just can't be found in the expected places.

  • Voice services used to be defined as phone lines, or for businesses, PRI (Primary Rate Interface). Phone lines are analog lines delivered over copper wire. The PRI is a voice T1 line. It is also delivered over copper, but supports 23 phone calls where the analog phone line only supports one call.
  • Voice systems, also referred to as phone systems, phone switch, or PBX (Private Branch Exchange), provide a centralized place where internal phones, calls, voicemail, and other internal voice communications take place. Traditionally, the voice system is owned by the company and housed in their office.

Today, there are multiple offerings for voice. Whether for one person or hundreds of people, voice services and systems can be delivered in a wide variety of ways. Hosted systems look just like the voice systems mentioned earlier with the exception that the system is designed for thousands of users and is (or should be) located in a very robust data center. The benefits of a hosted system include scale, features, and the elimination of capital costs. What is lost? Well, control. At some point the company providing the service needs to get your office connected to that system.

And this brings us to VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). Many people refer to all phone systems (hosted or not) as VoIP systems. And although this is technically accurate, it doesn't differentiate between the systems that you own and the hosted system. VoIP is used in both hosted voice services as well as systems you purchase. The latter being an IP PBX. Which is right for you? That may be for another conversation, but already the way the services are delivered to us is changing dramatically. Not too long from now (and some say it is now) the smartphone will be that one place where all business communication will happen whether it be voice, video, or any other form of communication.

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