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Webphones 101: A Beginner's Guide

by Kevin Bartley

Get answers to frequently asked questions about webphones—complete telephone applications, also known as softphones, found right in your web browser.

Webphones, as the name suggests, are phones you can use on the internet. Specifically, they’re powered by web-based applications right in your browser of choice.

If you’re ready to learn more about them, you're not alone. In this post, we'll go over some frequently asked questions about these calling apps, from how they work to how to use one.

What Are Webphones?

Webphones are web-based applications that allow you to make phone calls with your internet browser. They can make calls to and receive calls from any phone in the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), which is the global telecommunications network that includes analog telephone systems, fiber optic cables, microwave transmission links and cellular networks. While certain audio/video chat apps allow you to make calls within a specific network, we won't label those as webphones unless they can also call numbers in the PSTN.

By this definition, these web browser calling apps need to be able to call the PSTN, extension dial, access voicemail, record calls, and perform the daily functions required of a standard business phone. These legitimate webphones can serve as full replacements for the desk phones in your office, saving you some desk space.

The OnSIP app
The OnSIP app combines instant video, PSTN and extension calling, and presence into one in-browser app

How Does a Webphone Work?

To learn how browser based calling applications work, you first need to understand how web browsers work. Simply, web browsers rely on a lot of open-source software and development tools. These tools are adopted by developers who then build them into their web browsers. If a technology is not directly built into a web browser, you might have to download it. These are referred to as “plug-ins”.

There are many technologies developers can use to implement in-browser calling. One of the most prevalent is WebRTC (Web Real-Time Communications).

Owned by Google and supported by Apple, Microsoft, Mozilla and Opera, WebRTC essentially allows for audio and video communication to occur in a web browser via peer-to-peer technology.

WebRTC makes it possible for a calling app to work in any browser, between any browser. It doesn’t matter if you have Firefox, Chrome, Safari or Edge. Even better, you won’t have to download any plug-ins.

How Much Do Webphones Cost?

Most cloud phone systems offer these business softphones to their customers. They may require you to download an extension for your browser or refer you to the native Windows or Mac app. The systems that offer softphones usually include the app as a free feature along with their services. The OnSIP app is a free softphone that comes with cloud phone system service.

Some web based phones are offered as standalone products, separate from a phone system. They typically charge small licensing fees and taxes.

Calling rates vary by the provider servicing or offering the webphone. The OnSIP app offers free internet (SIP-to-SIP) calling, and calls to PSTN are subject to OnSIP calling rates.

How Do I Use a Webphone?

A webphone, by definition, runs in a webpage. The OnSIP app appears on a webpage with an entry box that can call numbers, SIP addresses, or extensions within your company. A drop-down number box also appears on the screen so you can manually input numbers. Two buttons beneath the entry box give you the option of making a voice or a video call. After dialing the number or the address, the entry box gives way to a screen displaying call data or a video stream, depending on the kind of call you chose.

My Desk Phone Works. Why Should I Use a Softphone?

The advantage of a webphone is that you can use it on any device, instantly connecting without any hoops to jump through. You won’t have to download any new apps on a borrowed computer. Just pop open the web browser, log in and you’re good to go. This flexibility allows someone to work from anywhere with a good internet connection. As such, webphones are excellent for remote or mobile workers.

The best known desk phone features—call transfer, call hold, busy lamp field, mute, three-way conferencing—are replicated in the OnSIP app. So you won’t have to worry about losing any features when switching from a desk phone to a browser phone.

Phones in a browser window can also offer more usability than desk phones. For example, you can drag and drop transfers or click to call instead of messing about with buttons. You can also take advantage of rich third-party integrations with other cloud platforms, like customer relationship management, help desk or chat apps.

Of course, there are some downsides when compared to desk phones. A softphone application needs to have an excellent microphone, speaker or headphones to fully take advantage of HD voice. Desk phones have dedicated hardware to maximize audio quality. Plus, you’re going to need a great internet connection, so if your computer has bad Wi-Fi® you may have a rough experience with disrupted calls.

While a traditional desk phone looks like a phone, it’s best not to judge a book by its cover as web based phones can offer more than desk phones in terms of features and usability. Phones make communication simple and easy, no matter what form they take and webphones can do that.

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