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Is the Desk Phone Living to Die or Dying to Live?

by Kevin Bartley

Independent market research suggests that the demand for desk phones has diminished steadily within the past year. But does it mean that the desk phone is dead?

Published: January 13, 2014

A recent post on No Jitter highlighted the taken-for-granted assumption that desk phones are quickly entering the realm of old-school crank phones (a.k.a. the graveyard). This is obviously not due to a lapse in usage; now more than ever, companies need to communicate quickly and effectively. But sterling softphones like Jitsi and Bria, and perhaps even the employees' own cell phones, are now viable alternatives to the one-desk-with-a-hard-phone office culture that has dominated American work life for the past several decades.

Independent market research seems to suggest that the demand for desk phones has diminished steadily within the past year. According to Alaa Sayed of Frost & Sullivan, 2013 was a hard sell for Cisco's IP desktop numbers, with a negative growth rate in units shipped. Additionally, both Avaya and Cisco are expected to end with more than 4M UC clients shipped, perceiving at least 40% growth in comparison to 2012.

Is the desk phone dying off because of alternatives such as softphones? 

The reasons given for the decline in desk phone usage vary. The obvious answer would be cost savings, because companies can save a significant amount of money by switching over to softphones, and gain in utility and application integration. But besides money, the social element of a desk phone may be at play. For instance, Christine Crandell of Forbes.com recently lamented that "the death of the desk phone is rooted in the daily voicemail clutter as well as the fear of accidentally talking to one of these [spam] callers."

The case for the death of the desk phone inevitably grows slightly larger each year with new emerging data. But the idea is hardly a new one. Verizon published a blog in 2009 claiming that "industry experts have been proclaiming the death of the desktop phone since the beginning of the decade." This means that the death of desk phone meme has perhaps been around since the early 2000s, let's say a decade and some change from this blog's writing. And yet we find ourselves in the very same predicament: softphones, while chipping away at the supremacy of the desk phone, have not completely extinguished the latter's ubiquity.

There is no question that desk phone usage has declined, and will almost certainly continue to do so. But to say that desk phones are "dead" is perhaps an extreme, and at the very least, imprecise way of labeling this downward trend. The metaphor of death has become so central to the way the viability of a technology is judged, and this black-and-white terminology often obscures the fact that the product is still being used by a sizeable portion of the population. A more accurate term, perhaps, would be the "slow but steady decline" of the desktop phone. Not a summary invalidation of its viability, but a tacit acknowledgement that it may eventually be supplanted by other technologies.