Hanging up on the business phone

It may take several years to see the business desk phone disappear, but the signs are already emerging that executives prefer smartphones, online collaboration and browser-initiated calling.

How enterprises communicate will change over the next few years. This is due in part to the rise of social networking, the cloud, and smart devices, and to the fact that greater collaboration is taking place on many fronts.

Much of the recent buzz around enterprise collaboration tools has been connected to Salesforce and its efforts to promote its Social Enterprise vision. At the heart of the Social Enterprise is Chatter, Salesforce’s collaboration tool, which provides enterprises with their own private social network, and can facilitate information sharing in the context of business processes and workflows.

It can also help enterprises increase the efficiency of employees seeking feedback from colleagues, relevant business partners, and customer communities. This is this area on which Salesforce is betting heavily, and which Ovum believes will eventually alter the enterprise Unified Communications (UC) landscape. Salesforce expects software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications to become part of integrated SaaS application suites that leverage cloud delivery platforms with collaboration tools such as Chatter.

Salesforce is not the first vendor to provide UC functionality in the cloud: telcos have been providing cloud-based enterprise UC services for years.

What makes the Salesforce approach unique is that it allows communications functionality to be distributed across a series of business-critical applications, increasing workflow integration between these applications and their users.

The momentum for using social media and communications is growing, and press reports of extreme examples such as Atos’s “zero email” policy have helped to build an image of quick transformations in the enterprise.

However, the reality is that it will take several years for the market to weave together all the areas of collaboration and communication in the UC stack. The first step is for Salesforce to build a large base of customers using Chatter in conjunction with business applications on its cloud platform. Only when the number of customers hits critical mass will the industry witness a gradual move to cloud-based UC with clusters of application ecosystems.

Leveraging mobility and HTML5 to displace the PBX

The proliferation of smartphones and the consumerisation of IT mean that over the next few years enterprises may find themselves evaluating whether the PBX is central to their communication strategy.

When, as seems likely, the majority of UC interactions move to smart devices, the need for the PBX will diminish. Already a growing number of employees prefer to use their smart devices even in office environments where they have access to desktop phones.

In theory, enterprises can leverage HTML5 browsers with embedded SIP stacks to provide call functionality over their IP network, meaning employees can initiate calls from their browsers. This ability, along with the use of smart devices and applications, will supplant many of the features the PBX currently supports, including FMC.

For this to happen, the various components and integrations must be supported in a productised manner by Salesforce and its application ecosystems, as well as other enterprise cloud and collaboration tool vendors. If they can support the generic capabilities inherent in smart devices and HTML5, and also embed an SIP stack within the browser, and if standards emerge, and security issues are addressed, then we will witness the beginning of the end of the PBX.

This will be a drawn-out process, and will take several years, as enterprises are not ready to scrap PBX systems in which they invested heavily.

In addition, incumbent UC vendors, which have many hooks into the enterprise, have a vested interest in keeping the PBX alive. Enterprises are likely to take a hybrid approach, utilizing smart devices that have in-browser calling capabilities alongside PBX systems, while slowly phasing the PBX out.

Daniel Hong is part of Ovum Telecom’s Enterprise team where he heads the global customer interaction (CI) research and consulting practice. 

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