Enable Tech is a column on design and technology by David Hunt. David has been our operations director from the very start, and has lead the evolution of Enable into one of the most respected and high-quality software development businesses around. David has an uncompromising passion for design, quality and excellence.
An interesting job we tackled as part of our office move was evaluating different telephone systems for the new building.
Enable has for many years used what might charitably be described as a “standard” office telephone system.
Low-tech phones were connected by ethernet cable (from which they drew power) to a central server. The server was connected to another mysterious piece of hardware, itself hooked up to the good ol’ BT infrastructure.
Using the telephone was not easy. Setting up speed dial keys was an unintuitive process. Checking your missed calls could be confusing. And organising a conference call was such a complex operation that specialist one-on-one training would be required first.
More positive aspects of the system were favourable call quality and rock-solid reliability. Truth is, it served us well for many years.
Our minds were not closed to the idea of implementing a similar system at the new building. What concerned us however was the lack of integration between the system and all the other technology we use. Plus, the implementation costs were surprisingly high for something that ultimately felt quite dated.
The second option we considered was Lync, a Microsoft software product. You can think of Lync as the equivalent to Microsoft Exchange for telephony. Friends of mine use it at their workplaces and say it’s good. I attended a demonstration of Lync (formerly known as Office Communicator) at Microsoft’s Reading offices some years ago and it was clearly a product Microsoft was serious about. They may still be.
The usability of Lync-compatible telephones is acceptable, with much of the heavy lifting handled by a simple client app running on your PC. There is a decent level of integration between Lync and Outlook.
Sadly, as a telephony solution, Lync still requires a similarly hefty combination of hardware and software as a traditional phone system. And although the usability is good, it’s not iPhone-good. The final nail in the coffin were the implementation costs — which were steep, at least for a business like Enable.
I expect Microsoft will soon launch a cloud-hosted version of the Lync telephony platform. (There is already a cloud version that does everything apart from the telephony bit.) Or they might decide, following their acquisition of Skype, that two VOIP platforms is one too many. We’ll see.
Our third option was to do nothing. We asked ourselves whether we actually needed a phone system. After all, mobile phones are the future, right?
We asked ourselves whether we actually needed a phone system
Adding weight to this argument was the fact that the members of our team who make the most calls tend to be on the road for much of the week. And when they’re not on the road they’re often working at home. What benefit to them is a phone system they can only use at the office?
It turns out that call quality on mobile phones is still quite poor. Although clever sounding technologies such as “HD Voice” and “wideband audio” do genuinely exist, they haven’t yet appeared on your mobile phone or in your network provider’s cell towers. And it’s not clear when they might.
The forth option was the wildcard: Skype. The thing you use when you want to show your relatives your pet cat. Cheap calls abroad. Distorted audio and blurry webcam video.
I discovered recently that many of the polished-sounding podcasts I subscribe to, in addition to being delivered in a recorded format, are also broadcast live over the Internet. The hosts of these shows are rarely in the same building as each other. They’re often in different states. The technology that makes this possible is nothing more than Skype combined with a nice microphone. This showed me that many people’s experiences with Skype aren’t a fair representation of what it can do. Good audio equipment and a good Internet connection can help a lot.
There’s a variety of devices you can hook up to your computer to use with Skype. We tested several. Our conclusion was that we still enjoyed using something that resembled a normal desk telephone.
Most of the devices that fit this description failed to meet the grade. Some were too plasticky. Some had poor audio quality. Some required flaky drivers to be installed on your PC. And some had their own software that ran on the phone itself; software that was decidedly subpar.
In fact, the only product we found that was designed for PC-based voice systems and was half decent was the Polycom CX200. It’s designed for Lync rather than Skype (although it behaves nicely with both). The CX200 only does a few things, but it does them well.
It has a good handset that delivers first-rate call quality. It has a great speakerphone. It only has three buttons and they all work in a logical fashion. And when you plug it into your PC it springs to life immediately with no need to install drivers or delve into the Skype preferences dialog box.
It feels good to not have a tonne of telephony hardware
Most things have to be done on your PC. Need to answer a call? Check. Need to end the call? Check. Need to dial a phone number? Transfer a call? Check for missed calls? Check, check, check.
But that’s OK. Doing these things in a simple Windows application is actually pretty neat. We can see when someone is online before we call them. Our staff feel liberated, moving effortlessly between instant messaging, phone calls, conference calls and video calls.
Staff working at home get to use the same stuff as the teams working at the office. It’s brought the company together a little.
We’re not locked-in to a platform. We could easily switch to Lync in the future if we wanted to. It feels good to not have a tonne of telephony hardware running in the cupboard.
The cost of running our Skype-based phone system is averaging £110 per month. This figure includes call charges. The up-front investment was roughly £1,000 for the 30-odd telephone handsets we bought, many of which were sourced on eBay. There were no up-front charges levied by Skype.
For now at least, we’re very happy with what we’ve got and feel well prepared for future developments in this field. Whatever they may be.