For the past few months, we’ve been investigating unified communications – the convergence of email, fax, phone and instant messaging. We’ve tried three different telephone exchanges to see how they integrate with our existing email system, Exchange Server. We’ve looked at Microsoft’s Office Communications Server (OCS), and while we’re still looking, here are some preliminary findings.
We’re a small company with only a handful of desk phones and incoming lines, and two things stood out in our requirements for physical phones – obviously, we need to speak, hear and transfer calls; we also don’t want to be tied to our desks, and we like using headsets rather than handsets, as they free up both hands for using a keyboard or mouse. An ordinary telephone handset is always in the wrong hand and trying to cradle it between shoulder and ear gives you a crick in your neck very quickly, and neither you nor the person you’re speaking to can hear properly.
We tried Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications (DECT) phones, just like you might have at home. DECT base stations can handle up to six handsets and transfer calls between them, but ones that handle multiple lines and allow you to customise the hold music, take voice messages and so on, are as rare and more expensive than hens’ teeth. DECT wireless headsets are similarly expensive. There’s no integration between that type of product and desktop computers or mobile devices, so you wouldn’t know whether you had voicemail when out of the office unless you phone in to check.
So we started to look more seriously at using VoIP within the office, which would give us greater flexibility in terms of the phones we could use, and a variety of hardware and software telephone exchanges to run them on. We quickly discovered that VoIP handsets using 802.11 Wi-Fi connections eat batteries and have appalling coverage compared with DECT phones. What do work well, however, are headsets connected to computers by an audio cord, USB or Bluetooth. Being wireless, Bluetooth gives you the freedom to move around within ten to 50m of your computer, depending on the power of the Bluetooth device and the structure of your building – the only downside being that “connecting” to a Bluetooth headset can take longer than plugging in a corded one.
I have Jabra BT620 Bluetooth stereo headphones, which I use for listening to music while I work, but nearly every time I use them I have to go through the pairing process again. The headphones will connect either as a “Stereo Audio” device with Remote Control (Play/Pause/Stop/Previous/Next) or as a “Handsfree Audio” device, giving mono audio in both directions and call-handling controls (Answer/Disconnect). They’ll even connect as both devices at once, and will pause the music while you take a phone call, resuming when the call ends. Battery life is good at 16 hours (talking or listening to music), and it’s nice to have no encumbering wires – I just wish they’d connect without making such a fuss. Other colleagues use Bluetooth earbuds similar to those used with a mobile phone, and sit round the office looking like Lieutenant Uhuru from Star Trek. No stereo music for them, but earbuds are much lighter than full headphones.
One of the market leaders in software telephone exchanges is Asterisk, but it requires a Linux box and we’re a Windows house, so our lack of Linux expertise ruled it out. Next we tested 3CX: built from the ground up for Windows rather than converted from Linux, 3CX uses the SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) standard, making it compatible with any SIP-compatible phone, software or hardware. 3CX comes in four different versions – Free, Small Business, Professional and Enterprise. The Free edition only handles eight simultaneous calls and is slightly restricted in features, but is very capable. All editions handle any number of extensions and the paid-for editions range from €375 to €1,150. However, you need one of the paid-for editions to get integration with Outlook, conference calling and fax handling.