Desktop phones to get more mobile features

Three desktop telephone makers last week detailed plans to ship IP-based phones designed to be more user-friendly than existing models and to interoperate with wireless networks and with other devices through USB ports.

The new offerings should begin to bring desktop phones into line with their mobile counterparts when it comes to features such as simplified dialing and text input, said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group Research in Boston. He added that until now, desktop models "haven't changed much in the last 30 years."

Avaya and Mitel Networks separately announced phones that are due to ship in July. In addition, an official at Siemens Communications said the company will formally announce a new line of IP-based and traditional circuit-switched phones in the fall, with a user interface that borrows from devices such as PDAs and the Apple iPod.

"The focus is on an easy user interface, something we borrowed from consumer electronics," said Joan Vandermate, vice president of product line management at Siemens Communications. The Siemens subsidiary will unveil up to six phone bodies that look "radically different" from today's desktop devices, Vandermate said. She added that the new models will include a USB port for connecting equipment such as wireless Ethernet adapters for linking the phones to Wi-Fi networks.

Avaya rolled out two phone models and said it plans to add another two to four by early 2007. The phones will have faceplates whose color can be changed, plus high-fidelity sound and a USB port for external connections.

LifeNet , a nonprofit human organ donation agency, is testing eight of the new Avaya phones at its help desk, which supports nearly 500 end users. Russell Stewart, information systems technical support manager at LifeNet, said he and the help desk workers have noticed a marked improvement in sound quality and ease of use.

That's important for an agency like LifeNet. "Voice communication is paramount to us, compared to data," Stewart said. "To take care of organ transfers, minutes matter to us, and we deal in one world that's both life and death."

From an IT standpoint, the built-in USB port enabled Stewart to use a thumb drive to transfer directory information to the new phones. "It's sort of like sneakernet from the floppy world and makes things a little easier," he said.

Lou D'Ambrosio, Avaya's president of global sales and marketing, said business workers have become accustomed to using wireless and handheld devices as well as applications such as instant messaging. Desktop phones now must interoperate with those products, he said, adding that the upcoming models will also support new applications, including the ability to display security camera feeds on their screens.

Mitel announced a pair of IP phones with a focus on ease of use and high-fidelity sound. The company is also adding a wireless phone stand that can give some of its wired models Wi-Fi connectivity, either as an access point that can be reached by several handsets or as a client device that can be moved around within offices.

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