Telephony and the Art of Talking

When I was growing up, my dad was a computer analyst and my grandad was a mechanical engineer. This influence led me to develop a fascination with systems and technology – about how things could be ordered and structured and systemised. Before I was in double-digits I used to catalogue and number the comics my other grandparents would buy me, and I used to write database systems on my Dragon 32 in my bedroom. Back then though, computers were unusual, but telephones were not – I could get my hands on telephones every day, but computers very rarely. Cue the end result of me having a weird childhood obsession with telephones that has stayed with me my whole life. For example, in my first flat I had a second-hand wired PBX system, with extensions in every room.

Today though, what actually is the point of telephones?

Telephone systems have always fitted into a weird space in the IT market. Telephone systems have, since the rollout of BT’s System X telephone exchanges in the 1980, been computerised, yet the market very firmly seems to cleave itself in two – proper computer systems over on this side, and telephone systems on the other. This specialism results in suppliers of one of them tending not to be good at supplying the other, and vice versa, even though telephone systems are now in every case just embedded computer systems.

Back in the day, the main, most important network used to be the phone network. This network exclusively was used to carry voice and consisted of a bunch of wired knotted together into a telephone exchange system. We then got mobile networks that were still voice based but that used radio signals rather than wired. As we needed to connect computers together and let them talk directly, we found ways to carry computer data on these networks that were originally designed for voice. As computers have developed, the importance of the data network has dwarfed the importance of the voice network, especially as you can think about voice as just being an application that can be ran on a computer network.

Fast-forward to mid-2020 and we have a peculiar situation with regards to telephony.

It makes no sense for BT, Vodafone, EE, or any other network to maintain any network other than a data network. As such, in 2015 BT announced that it would be moving everyone off of the old “PSTN” (“public switched telephone network”, but I prefer “POTS” or “plain old telephone system”) network and onto using “VoIP”, or “voice over internet protocol” – i.e. for all of us, being able to pick up a phone, dial and number, and talk to someone would be an application that runs over the internet.

If you think about a typical desk, if it has a computer on it and a phone on it, what you have is two computers – one that does computer-but-not-telephony stuff, and one that does telephone-but-not-computer stuff. Both of these computers have speakers, a microphone, and a display, and both of them can be used to make phone calls. Only one of them has this quasi-anachronistic usage style of being able to pick up a handset and put it to your ear.

You don’t really need a desk phone, but as someone who is a) of a certain age, and b) has had a lifelong obsession with telephones, I find it much more comfortable to pick up by handset and talk on it than I do as opposed to using a “soft phone” that runs on an application on my computer. It’s weird, superstitious even, to find it more comfortable to use a physical phone than a soft phone. I’ll chat for hours on something that feels like a physical phone, but can’t wait to end a soft phone call.

Where this gets weirder than that is that at the start of 2020, we knew what the trajectory of telephones would take – BT would switch off the PSTN network, and we’d all go out and by VoIP telephony solutions. This process might involve a refreshing of the desk phones that we have to shiny new VoIP phones.

The writing has been on the wall on this for so long that many businesses have already done this. If they had not, the mass decamping of office-based work to remote-based work during lockdown would have been an absolute disaster. Our societal resilience and ability to adapt in this way was largely down to pre-done investments in internet telephony. Can you imagine if the banks had had to close their call centres because they couldn’t route the phones to the employees’ working from home?

Now though, Zoom has come out of nowhere and, whilst what’s happened this year has been great for them, they might have just created enough of a tipping point to shove plain old telephony solutions out on its ear. (Quite how Skype managed to lose out to Zoom given the enormous head start that Skype had is a question for another day.) The new telephony systems that we were investing in were all voice based, on the assumption that no one really liked video calls that much in business settings. (Interestingly though there was a huge appetite in family settings using video calls on WhatsApp and FaceTime.) What the mass adoption of Zoom shows us is that we actually quite like video, and maybe even prefer it to picking up the phone.

The question then is if this is true, what does this mean for telephony? My suggestion would be that any investment in phone systems needs to be biased towards using soft phones for now and hold off buying phone handsets, and see whether customers and partners seem to express a natural preference to Zoom and other similar platforms. At the least, start offering Zoom calls at the same time as offering voice calls, something we’re seeing start to happen naturally anyway.

By Matthew Reynolds