USB & Bluetooth In IP Phones: A Missed Opportunity?

Last week’s VUC call with FWDs Dan Behringer brings to mind a common complaint about SIP desk phones, namely the lack of an alphanumeric keyboard. Lacking a proper keyboard it’s difficult to really push the idea of SIP URIs as a primary means of making calls.

There are a variety of approaches to overcoming this, including the use of ISNs as prescribed by the Freenum project. That project proposes a means of dialing SIP URIs indirectly, assigning them ISN numbers. Since ISNs use only numbers and the * key they can be dialed on a traditional phone keypad. It’s essentially a way of avoiding SIP URIs through indirection.

However, the Freenum project is a third party effort that doesn’t engage the various manufacturers of enterprise IP phones. It seems to me that those manufacturers have a considerable stake in the evolution of telephony in this direction.

At least some of these manufacturers are missing an opportunity presented by some of their own hardware. A number of the newer model IP phones have USB or Bluetooth interfaces. The phones pictured above are all examples of this, although Mitel, Cisco, Avaya and Nortel also make phones with these interfaces.

Given the availability of these interfaces there is simply no reason not to support the use of a real keyboard as an accessory to the desk phone!


With access to a real keyboard entering SIP URIs is an absolute no-brainer. It’s no longer an obstacle to migration away from PSTN-derived “phone numbers.”

As a practical matter USB keyboards are becoming the norm, and even very small USB keyboards are now commonplace. Some are even flexible, rolling up when not in use. Those who would suggest that full-sized keyboard are impractical are missing the point.

Keyboards leveraging Bluetooth connectivity have also been around for some time, and will doubtless become more common as the iPad is more widely deployed. USB keyboards for the iPad are taking various forms.

From my time spent with the Polycom VVX-1500 Business Media Phone I know that Polycom has already done the work to implement an on-screen keyboard that leverages the touchscreen of the device. Why not redirect that keyboard support to the USB or Bluetooth interfaces? It makes a lot of sense to me.

It seems that manufacturers current have a very narrow view of the role of these interfaces. In the case of the USB ports, Polycom only uses them solely to accept flash memory stick for call recording. I’ve heard that snom allows the use of a USB attached wifi interface. With Bluetooth it seems that cordless headsets are the sole scope of application.

I once read a blog post that noted humorously how a user had charged their iPhone by way of the USB port on the back of a snom 820. While superficially funny it’s actually something of a travesty. That port should be used to enable greater productivity.

I accept that at present these interfaces are limited to the higher-end offerings of the various manufacturers. However, there is a reality that the prices of these high-end phones are getting harder and harder to justify. Making the hardware more flexible in allowing the use of a keyboard would seem like a good way to add value.

The same can also be said for on-phone web interfaces. Most phones have on-board http services to allow for configuration. If we cannot dial by SIP URI from the physical device then why not from the web GUI? To my knowledge only snom supports this kind of operation. The rest use the web GUI exclusively for configuration tasks.

In all these instances the current state of their narrow application within desktop IP phones seems to me a wasteful half-measure.

  • J Reynolds

    Alcatel-Lucent had had qwerty keyboards and bluetooth interface on their IP 8-series phones for years.

  • I completely see your point and appreciate the need for a convenient way to enter SIP URI’s, however, I am not sure if BT/USB keyboard is the best approach.

    In addition to buying the (already expensive) IP Phones, users will now have to shell out more money for these keyboards. Further, it will take away the sleekness or portability of the IP phones. Why can’t the manufacturers use the qwerty keyboard on the phone for this? Further, many SIP providers have peering available, eliminating the need to enter the SIP URIs.

    Having said that, I will admit that it is always good to have more features, so why not have this 🙂

    Disclaimer: My only experience with IP phones is the one in my office and it is not a very high end model.

    • Alok,

      As you note there may be issues surrounding providing keyboards, or desk space. However, if the ports exist on the devices why not allow their use? Maybe its only a small % of users who take advantage of it, but it would still be a good idea.

      OTOH, allowing dial by SIP URI in a web interface would probably see broad uptake. I wonder what % of snom users makes use of this feature? It’s been in their firmware a very long time. I once had a snom 200 that had a great web interface.

  • OMG finally someone else has said it! I’ve been saying for well over a year now that the next generation of desk phone will no longer have the standard keypad we’re used to. It’s either going to be a phone with a full screen display (i.e. no buttons — ala iPhone) or it’s going to be a display with a keyboard on the bottom which replaces the standard dialpad (ala all modern smart phones like my Nokia E71 or a Blackberry).

    The days of dialpads are coming to an end. They could already be on the way out if phoen manufacturers hired someone whose been working with phones for less than a decade.