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August 25, 2011

I never took SIP, Softphones and Voice over IP seriously before

by Darren W Baker

When I think of Voice Over IP (VOIP), I remember my friends a few years ago connecting a Vonage like service to their home Internet and trying to call me. We would talk for 15 minutes or so, and I could hear every other word. If they were trying to download something, retrieve email or browse webpages,  I might not even get that.

The VOIP  technology was invented in 1996 and in 2004 the first consumer products started to hit the market as internet broadband services became more widely adopted. At the time they were mostly toys, providing limited use, provided you had sufficient bandwidth using a cable modem or DSL. A lot has changed since then and now companies offer hosted services that you can lease time on, essentially outsourcing your entire phone system to an Internet service provider.

There are three types Voice Over IP available; IP Phones, Software VoIP and Mobile and Integrated VoIP. Use of IP Phones has become the most established in business and it seems the use of software VoIP has increased during the economic down turn from 2008 as people are looking for ways to cut costs.

I experimented with this a little bit in Indianapolis before I moved to Seattle, using our internet service provider and VOIP to replace my home phone in the house. I was able to plug in a real phone and make calls just like I could with the original phone company but I didn’t do much more with it.

As it turns out, I was missing a key benefit.  With software phones or “softphones”, you can connect the phone number and make calls with your PC or Windows 7 tablet.  Perfect for the highly mobile employee, or just someone who works from home.  You don’t have to give them a desk and a phone, just a SIP account and some software.

My colleagues at Microsoft are already doing this with new version of Office Communication Server , now called LYNC. When I visit the Microsoft offices, I see people walking the halls, sitting in conference rooms or common areas talking to their computers on wired or wireless headsets. Once you see it in action, it’s really amazing. You can call someone and actually reach them anywhere, since their desk phone goes with them where ever they have a WiFi connection.

Sure, you can call their cell phone too, but cell phone air time is not cheap.  I travel internationally for business and my cell phone is so prohibitively expensive I try not to use it at all when abroad. Now when I travel I can forward my cell phone to my softphone number when I have internet access and answer calls with no roaming or international charges.

There are additional benefits too, like presence. With presence you see if someone is available for a quick question that doesn’t require a voice call. If needed, you can turn a simple chat session into a voice conversation easily and add people to the call without complicated phone codes or commands.  You can also dial them from your Active Directory or Exchange address book without entering the actual number yourself.

Lync integrates with many phone systems and services. Alternatively there are many software phones available today free and paid that offer a few of the similar features. Wikipedia has a list of SIP software that works with different vendors SIP solutions if your company isn’t using Lync and you want to experiment.

Softphone, who knew it had grown up so fast? It is just the sort of application that you would need on any mobile device, tablet or slate.

This does pose some interesting questions. Do the traditional phone service providers worry about WiFi and SIP based phone eroding their market or are they switching over to offer the same services? I ask because a friend of mine called me from his cellphone and it was displayed as an incoming SIP call complete with email address. Does this reliance on technology make us incapable of remembering phone numbers anymore? Does it matter that we cant remember your phone number, since you change service providers every 6 to 12 months when a new device comes out?

What I really want to know is; when are these SIP Software phone providers going to release a version for Windows Phone 7? That would make me really happy.

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