Cisco extends IP phone lineup

Desktop IP (Internet Protocol) phones inched closer to computing platforms on Tuesday with Cisco Systems' announcement of a phone with a color touchscreen and the addition of XML (Extensible Markup Language) application support to two of its less expensive phones.

IP phones can send and receive data as well as voice calls over the same kind of network that carries Web pages and application traffic. Cisco makes a wide range of IP phones, some of which already can be used as platforms for XML applications such as instant messaging, inventory checking, employee directories, flight schedules and headline news services.

On Tuesday, Cisco unveiled the IP Phone 7970G, its first phone with a color display and a touchscreen. The new features make the phone easier to use and will let developers write applications that use images, said Troy Trenchard, Director of Product Marketing for Cisco's IP Communications group. In addition, the company upgraded its lower-end 7905G and 7912G phones with XML support. Those less expensive phones have small monochrome displays best suited to text-based software, he said.

The introductions came on the eve of Cisco's Innovation Through Convergence Expo in Santa Clara, California, where Cisco partners will show off a variety of XML applications that can run on the phones.

The introduction of more advanced IP phones, as well as voice-calling applications on PCs, is starting to blur the line between handsets and computers, according to Yankee Group analyst Zeus Kerravala.

"You may have a PC with voice capability, but you'll also have a phone with other capabilities," Kerravala said. In some cases, such as in the lobby of an office building, organizations may be able to get rid of the PC all together, he said.

As phone functions increasingly become integrated into software, a key challenge for Cisco is how to cultivate relationships with independent software vendors it wants to write applications for its phones, Kerravala said.

Two customers for the 7970G illustrate how its color image display can be used, according to Cisco's Trenchard. The Greater Toronto Airports Authority, in Toronto, Ontario, plans to set up the phones at security posts and send out images of at-large criminal suspects so guards can see who to look out for. The city of Herndon, Virginia, will use the phones at public safety agencies and distribute alerts about missing persons to them, he said. The 7970G can take the place of a PC for these kinds of applications, letting organizations bypass the management costs and security concerns about PCs, Trenchard said.

The 7970G will begin shipping by the end of this year and be generally available in the first quarter of 2004 at a list price not to exceed US$995, according to Cisco. The 7905G and 7912G are available now for US$135 and US$165, respectively. The enhanced XML capabilities are set to become available at no cost in the upcoming release of Cisco CallManager software near the end of this year. The next release of CallManager will automatically add XML capabilities to phones that are already installed.

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