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Softphones vs hardphones: navigating the future of telephony

Posted by Daniel Noworatzky on Apr 3, 2024 10:59:00 AM

Woman speaking on a smartphone - TeleDynamics blog

For many people, the comfort and familiarity of the traditional desktop telephone are non-negotiable. There is something reassuring about holding a handset to your ear, speaking into the mouthpiece, and sometimes even fumbling playfully with the coiled cord.

Even so, current trends seem to indicate that the days of these traditional desk phones — even highly advanced voice over IP (VoIP) phones—are numbered. 

In this article, we examine the rise of softphones and the decline of hardphones. We also explore the reasons for this trend and try to predict what you can expect in the coming years.

Softphone and hardphone terminology

The term "softphone" is a portmanteau of "software" and "telephone" and has its origins in the early days of VoIP deployments in the late 1990s. Originally, it referred to a VoIP telephony endpoint in the form of software typically run on a desktop PC.

Since then, the term has been extended to include apps on mobile devices and software-based VoIP endpoints that perform the role of a telephone.

By extension, the term "hardphone" came into use much later to distinguish between softphones and the purpose-built IP phones we see on desks in a typical office. Although the term is not used as extensively as that of its software-based counterpart, the word "hardphone" is still sometimes used to refer to these physical telephony devices.

Today's telecom services

Virtually all modern telecom systems leverage VoIP as their fundamental method of voice transmission. Unified communications (UC) systems can register both purpose-built IP desk phones and softphones, which are typically installed as apps on smartphones, tablets, desktops, and laptops.

At its Cisco Live event last year, Cisco predicted that 75% of employee workstations will not be equipped with desk phones in the future. This is a profound statement, especially when we recognize that this prediction only considers physical office workstations.

It does not include the massive migration to softphones that has already occurred for the mobile workforce — those employees not tied to specific desks or physical locations. The prediction is that employees who work at permanently located physical desks will, over time, also prefer the benefits of software-based communications devices over physical VoIP telephones on the desktop.

What is fueling the softphone trend?

Arguably, the single most influential factor driving this trend is the rise of UC systems. VoIP systems tend to mimic their even more traditional PBX telephony systems, delivering voice communications to telephony-based end devices. 

UC systems enrich this communication by adding additional services, including collaboration capabilities, remote meeting features, multi-feed video, AI enhancements, and integration with third-party applications.

Software-based endpoints are much more flexible and powerful at leveraging the capabilities of UC systems. They can be updated easily with a simple download of the newest version, and they can take advantage of the device's integrated camera, microphone, screen, and other peripherals.

In contrast, to compete with such flexibility, IP desk phones need to have their own built-in cameras and screens, and be able to interface with additional peripherals to achieve the same level of immersion and functionality.

Once procured, these phones remain in their initial configurations for the lifetime of each device, with upgrades and limited additional features made possible only with the installation of newer firmware versions.

Additional factors influencing this movement away from hardphones

Beyond the rise of UC, other factors make the use of softphones more attractive for modern businesses. These factors have been accelerating this trend in recent months and will continue to do so for the next few years:

  • Increased mobility and remote work: Softphones can be installed on mobile devices, allowing users to make and receive calls from anywhere with an internet connection. This benefits both mobile-only workers and hybrid workers

  • Cost-effectiveness: Softphones often require less hardware investment because they are typically installed on existing devices. In fact, they are usually free of charge or extremely cheap and can be easily installed by the end-user. Additionally, the cost of maintenance and administration is substantially lower for softphones than desk phones' physical hardware because they can be updated online.

  • Scalability and flexibility: Softphones offer greater scalability and flexibility for businesses. It's easier to add new users or adjust the functionality of the phone according to the changing needs of the business. This scalability is particularly beneficial for growing companies and those with fluctuating staffing levels.

  • Advanced features and updates: Platforms that leverage softphones often provide a wider range of features and are updated more frequently than those delivering service only to hardphones. Features like advanced call forwarding, voicemail to email, and integration with CRM systems enhance productivity and efficiency.

  • User preference and tech savviness: As the workforce becomes more tech-savvy, employees often prefer using devices that they are familiar with, like smartphones, desktops, or laptops. The user interfaces of softphones tend to be more intuitive and closely aligned with the user experiences of other modern applications.

  • Environmental concerns: Softphones are more environmentally friendly because they reduce the need for manufacturing, shipping, maintaining, and eventually disposing of physical phone hardware. This is increasingly important for businesses looking to reduce their environmental impacts.

  • Network convergence: VoIP and UC are network services that rely exclusively on internet connectivity. If they have not already done so, the logical next step for businesses is to converge their voice and data networks. Softphones facilitate this convergence, simplifying the network infrastructure and potentially reducing costs.

The future of the hardphone

Although this trend is becoming increasingly established in the business world, we don't expect the hardphone to completely disappear soon. One reason, of course, is that some users will continue to prefer them, but there are also certain niche markets where hardphones will not and cannot be phased out.

These include scenarios where the actual telephony device does not belong to a particular person but is shared by multiple people or used by multiple users in turn or succession. Such scenarios include:

  • Healthcare: Hardphones are used in hospital rooms, doctor's examination rooms, and nurses' offices, where quick communication by multiple users is required.

  • Hospitality: Hotels and resorts often use hardphones in guest rooms and service desks. These devices are typically integrated with the hotel's management system for billing and service requests.

  • Warehouses, manufacturing, and industrial sectors: In environments with harsh conditions or rough environments, hardphones are typically used because they are more durable, can be used with gloves, and are less likely to be damaged.

  • Public spaces and transport hubs: Airports, train stations, and public buildings often have hardphones for emergency and public use. Hardphones in common areas in office spaces and other locations allow for accessible and quick interaction.

Conclusion

The need for mobility, cost-effectiveness, and seamless integration with UC platforms drives the shift towards softphones. This trend reflects the changing work environment and the evolving preferences and requirements of modern businesses and their employees.

While hardphones will still be used, especially in certain industries and for specific roles, they are increasingly being replaced by more flexible, scalable, and feature-rich softphone solutions.


You may also like: 

Practical applications of AI in unified communications

Yealink unveils cutting-edge T44U & T44W SIP desk phones

How VoIP and AI are revolutionizing communications

 

Topics: SIP Phones, VoIP, Trends, Unified Communications

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In this blog you'll read our thoughts on business telephone systems. While a lot has changed in telecom since TeleDynamics was founded in 1981, we remain as committed as ever to delivering the best customer service in the industry.

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