Does the World Need a New Phone?

They won’t be hitting the streets until early next month (January 2, 2007), but today Siemens Communications announced the release of its first group of OpenStage enterprise desktop IP phones.

Martin Northend, Siemens director of global portfolio marketing, commented to, “One of the frustrations that we’ve had with IP telephony is, while we’ve changed the plumbing, we’ve changed very little else about the user experience.” In a world where people have developed high expectations for devices like PDAs and cell phones, why is it that office phones can’t do similar things—like accessing Web pages and calling directories?

OpenStage is about to change that picture.

In fact, the company is billing the new product as not just a phone, but as a platform for “open communications.” The key to this openness is the IETF’s telephony signaling standard, SIP—the session initiation protocol.

According to Northend, not only is OpenStage the first phone to support open communication, “it also supports all the major application environments we envision an IT department wanting to use to get information out to users,” including Java, HTML, WML, and XML. If you’ve guessed that it supports business applications that go beyond phone calls, you’re on track. More on this in a bit.

Furthermore, the unit has a multitude of connectivity options, all aimed at enhancing the variety of tasks the phone can address.

OpenStage phone
Fig. 1: Siemens’ OpenStage enterprise desk phone

First, it is equipped with Bluetooth and supports the object push protocol, which means not only can users optionally use a Bluetooth headset in lieu of the phone’s handset, but OpenStage can bidirectionally exchange contact information with a mobile phone.

The standard Ethernet connection supports Gigabit data rates.

A USB connection allows a wireless LAN adaptor to be added, making it the first enterprise phone to support both wired and wireless networking infrastructure. It also serves as a data port, since a USB flash memory stick is a convenient device for transferring application data from the PC.

A keyboard port and jack for a standard wired headset round out the connection possibilities.

Another OpenStage innovation is a high-quality built-in speakerphone, capable of supporting large group conferencing without a specialized conference phone. According to Al Baker, U.S. vice president of product and service management, Siemens developed the audio technology from the ground up, taking advantage of the phone’s large form factor to house a large, high-quality speaker, and a top quality microphone.

Qualitative research undertaken in the early stages of developing the OpenStage line revealed that, in addition to the lack of good speakerphones (which Siemens has now addressed), end-user dissatisfaction with existing enterprise phones focused on the lack of built-in directories.

Not only does the OpenStage platform support on-phone personal directories –populated by Bluetooth communications with a mobile phone, or from a user’s PC-based Outlook or other directory, either using special synchronization software—it also supports (and provides access to) LDAP-based corporate directories over the IP network.

OpenStage menus
Fig. 2: Dynamic screen menu: incoming call

These directories are telephony-related data applications, of course, but Siemen’s vision extends farther, to LAN-based enterprise apps like calendars and Web-based public resources like white-pages directories. With future third party development support, horizontal applications will come into play—like timesheets and specialized vertical, industry-specific data apps for, say law offices and healthcare organizations. This is all uncharted territory for office phone.

Another finding from the pre-design research was, as Al Baker put it, “They don’t want to have to learn how to use it. Technology should adapt to people’s needs, not vice versa.” That is, no more than 20 percent of enterprise users ever bothered to program a programmable key on their desk phone.

The OpenStage answer to this issue is to provide dedicated, icon-based keys for all of the phone’s functions, along with some other innovative controls. Central to the base unit is a circular iPod-style navigation dial, that lets users scroll through the dynamic, context-sensitive menus that appear on the VGA screen (see Fig. 2). Volume control—also context-sensitive—is the job of a cool finger “slider” above the keypad (no moving parts here, just a sensor strip).

Bottom line, beyond all the cool new user-driven and user-pleasing design, the OpenStage phones really do seem to have achieved an unprecedented level of integration – with the IP network and with other communications technology ‘silios.’ In a move that has, perhaps, a touch of irony about it, six months or so down the line, Siemens will ‘supplement’ it’s wide-open, SIP-based line with OpenStage phones based on proprietary Siemens IP technology, and on TDM.

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