A common wisdom here is that one should use a proper hardware phone rather that an extra software on the user’s PC. Why is that such a big issue?
One thing that bothers me with the current crop of hardware SIP phones is that they are hopelessly proprietary.
So what would it take to build a fully-adaptable phone?
I am 100% behind the assertion that most users want a hard phone on their desk. Soft phones, even good ones, seem to be exclusively the domain of those who travel and vertical niches like call centers.
The thread goes on to consider various platform options as well as the existing work of Australia’s David Rowe. David seems like a most amazing guy, having taken an open source approach to telephony hardware to create a low cost embedded Asterisk platform, the IP04 based upon the Blackfin DSP.
Some think that using a common x86 CPU would make such a device easier for developers to handle. I’m not so certain that it matters all that much. I suspect that many functions inside an IP phone are better suited to DSPs than general purpose CPUs. But if the CPU is both cheap enough an sufficiently powerful such differences may be academic.
It seems that the development of hardware is more difficult on a community basis. But perhaps it’s not truly required? There are a number of hard phones available that already run an embedded Linux OS. Perhaps these are platforms just waiting to be exploited?
For precident let us consider the venerable Cisco/Linksys WRT-54GL. While fundamentally sold as a consumer router, ready-to-roll out of the box, the GL variant is often paired with third party firmware like DD-WRT, OpenWRT, Sveasoft or Tomato.
When Cisco decided to migrate away from Linux as the basis for the device there was such a public outcry that they reinstated the Linux based product along side the new WxWorks based model. I wonder just how many WRT-54GL they have sold at a small premium just to support this third party developer markeplace? There are in fact over 20 different firmware releases developed around the WRT-54G series.
Turning our attention to existing IP phones the name that leaps out at me is snom. They are well known to have Linux based products, and also produce high-quality hardware. If suitable documentation was available then perhaps there’s a hardware basis for beginning a project.
Beyond snom there are of course a number of low-cost phones available from various Asian manufacturers. However, it’s difficult to see how sucessful the project could be if it relied upon sub-standard hardware. If the proponents aim to compete with the likes of Polycom, Nortel, Cisco & Avaya then the look and feel of the hardware simply must be top-shelf.
We can look to the past and see an example of Linux based phones that didn’t quite make the cut in the Zultys 4X4 and 4×5 models. A few years back I was very interested the the potential of the Zultys 4×5 for my home office as well and a friends travel agency business. I bought a 4×5 very early in their availability and did some basic interoperability testing with Asterisk.
This phone had so much going for it. Here’s the basic overview:
- Linux based
- Built-in router with 4 port switch with QoS management
- Web-based admin interface
- POE powered
- 1 FXO for lifeline support
- Built-in calculator functions
- Wired headset jack (2.5mm)
- VPN end-point functionality
- Supported SRTP
The theory was that you could drop one of these into someones home, connect it to their DSL or cable modem and make it the core of a home office network. In my friends case it would VPN connect to the travel agencies main office and route all calls securely back to their PBX.
The problem was that the physical hardware was a little flaky. The buttons didn’t have a good feel. The handset was too light and plasticky. Also many functions had slightly awkward keypress sequences. Finally, the POTS line could not be redirected at the PBX for the purpose of VM. These are the sort of things that can cripple a potentially great device.
Ultimately it was Zultys themselves who forced me to set the device aside as unusable. At the time they refused to deal with end-users for firmware issues, instead directing me to their reseller. But their resellers were completely unable to provide support in depth. If the device had been community supported perhaps that would not have been the case.
Or perhaps such a project would go totally another direction. It seems that OpenPeak has some extremely nice hardware. They are supposed to be opening up widget development to third parties, and even offering to sell widgets from their web site.
That people are expressing frustration with existing IP phones is clear indication of an opportunity. There’s a chance for someone to introduce the desk phone reimagined from a brand new perspective.