A few weeks ago in this space we discussed the long-running demise of a once significant feature of American telecommunications — the telephone directory.
Now we need to alert you to a trend that, if it plays out in the direction it’s headed, could well do away with an even more important component — the telephone itself.
Washington Technology Solutions, the agency that handles telecommunication services for state government, says it is phasing out the standard desk set telephone at its own operations. In its place, the agency plans to use a cloud-based service from Microsoft called, colorfully enough, Phone System, in conjunction with another Microsoft product called Teams. Instead of using a conventional telephone, employees can access the phone system through a desktop or laptop computer.
The new setup will allow state employees to do what they already can with a conventional telephone — place or receive calls, put calls on hold or transfer them — and some things not available through the existing system, such as clicking a name in a digital address book to call that person, making or receiving video calls, or having voicemail messages transcribed and forwarded to an email inbox.
WaTech says it will convert its own phones to the new system over the next six weeks (except for its call center), then get to work on other agencies, beginning with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The long-term goal is to have most of what the agency describes as its customers to be on the new phone system or other VoIP (voice over internet protocol) systems by 2024.
The agency does say that those who don’t want to give up their desk set will be able to keep it. Those phones no longer wanted will go to other agencies or be shipped to state surplus.
As telecommunications have evolved to become more powerful and widespread, so has the equipment users have to connect with it the system. From the earliest days of a wall-mounted box with a hand crank to summon an operator at a central switching station, the telephone adopted a form in use for decades — black, with a rotary dial and, later push buttons. Businesses who in their time found the telephone as powerful a tool for commerce as their successors found the personal computer developed ever more elaborate telephone systems; the desktop version featured a row of flashing lights to represent multiple lines.
While the announcement that the workplace desktop telephone handset is in the autumn of its years might be jarring to those of us at the same stage of life, it might hardly cause a ripple among those who have grown up since the breakup of the Bell System and for whom multiple choices and configurations of telephones are the standard condition.
The move to multiple mobile devices, the decline of the landline telephone and the introduction of such technological wizardry as VoIP and voice recognition makes the trend inevitable and irreversible. That little hunk of plastic in your hand that we used to quaintly call a cell phone is really a handheld computer. Merging the desktop telephone into the desktop computer is a natural progression.
This is hardly limited to Washington state government. A quick internet search reveals multiple articles on the theme of “does business even need traditional telephones anymore?” Some carry the conjecture beyond even that, discussing whether businesses even need a telephone system (instead of ditching it in favor of relying entirely on smartphones).
“Should you do away with desk phones anyway?” asks an article on the website operated by telecom consultancy Bandwidth Simplified. “At the risk of being anticlimactic, the answer depends on your business. Does your leadership want to make it happen and is willing to put money, time and planning toward a solution? Is your organization full of on-the-go employees that are hardly at their desks? If you’re answering yes to questions that point to desk phone hardware being unnecessary, then dump it.
“If your leadership isn’t entirely sold on the idea, ensuring every one of the factors listed above is accounted for with a quality solution is tough. Maybe the move toward complete business mobile adoption will be a slower process. The desk phone is entering its twilight years, but there’s no telling how long those years will last.”
There will be glitches, frustrations, hiccups and the occasional catastrophe during this transition. The state says the switch will save money. We’ll see. Adoption of an entirely new technology comes with its own new costs and new ways to spend money.
But the day is coming, and it might not be much longer in arriving, when a generation viewing a movie set in an office looks upon the desktop telephone as a curious and dated artifact, much as the scenes set in computer rooms in which the data processing machines take up the entire floor. They’ll need us to explain what those were and how they worked — or maybe they’ll just ask Google, Alexa, Siri or one of their digital buddies.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at [email protected].