Obsolete Technologies, Unified Communications, and Romancing the Phone

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their title: Why do hotels have landlines, let alone a clock radio?
my title: Obsolete technologies, unified communications and romancing the phone

Strategy Session: Obsolete Technologies, Unified Communications, and Romancing the Phone (Alberta Venture, October 2015)

By Marzena Czarnecka

I’m on a business trip into the past. No, it’s not a metaphor. I’m in a hotel room, and I’m surrounded by Ghosts of Technologies Past. Except they are not ghosts: they are very physically real, and in the case of the giant flat screen television on one of the walls of the room, domineering, overwhelming.

And yet, for all intents and purposes… useless.

I won’t turn the television on once in the three days I spend in the hotel room. What for? News is being fed into my phone and laptop as it occurs. Ditto weather. Entertainment? Netflix, Hoopla, iTunes, Google+ et al. provide me with what I want when I want it, and not on some arbitrary schedule (and don’t get me started on commercials). I’m killing cable and satellite every time I click on Netflix. And television manufacturers? This hotel room’s television set has no connectivity, and so would be useless to me even if my phone and laptop haven’t trained me to be indifferent to the big screen experience.

I unplug the room’s alarm-clock-radio so that I can charge my phone—which is my alarm, clock, radio, weather station, camera, art-creating-device and lifeline to the world. My phone—like yours—is the single most important device I own. It enables everything. It’s how I conduct interviews, check email, text with clients, colleagues, friends on six continents, mildly neglected children. With the help of a wireless keyboard, I’ve written and filed stories from it from a canoe in the middle of the Canadian North. I gently caress it as I set it down—I’m, perhaps, a little too attached to it—and then I look, quizzically, at the instrument beside it that is also a telephone.

One attached to a landline. Cute, quaint. Old and dirty, actually. The instrument is probably 10 years old? Maybe more. Nobody will use it to call me. For that matter, nobody will use my cell phone to call me either: they’ll text or email me if they need to change our interview time, want to meet me in the lobby, send me the address of the restaurant where the day’s final meeting is. That landline is there in the hotel room, why? So I can call the front desk to ask for a new pillow, more towels. Order room service.

True story: I end up calling the front desk from my cell phone, because I can’t figure out how to make the landline work. “0” does not take me to the operator, and the buttons that might be labeled Front Desk, Room Service, HELP are so old, they’re smudged…

I call the front desk, by the way, to tell them that while it’s lovely that there is high speed Internet in the room, the plug through which it flows fits nothing on my laptop. For the love of god, there is a Wi-Fi network, right? Right. They give me instructions. I follow them. Run my phone off the hotel’s Wi-Fi as well, until it crashes—and then, I connect my laptop to my phone’s hot spot, and none of my technological needs are dependent on the hotel’s obsolete infrastructure.

Expensive obsolete infrastructure, with ongoing maintenance costs. I suppose once they buy 300 alarm-clock-radios, they might as well keep them in the rooms, but how much, do you think, in an age in which every single one of its clients has a cell phone, does the hotel spend maintaining the room-to-room-to-front-desk telephone system hardly anybody uses?

Way more than it needs to, than it ought to. And the same goes for pretty much every business operating today, says Ron McKenzie, Senior Vice President, Business of Shaw Communications. And they’re recognizing it. In December 2014, Coca Cola eliminated voice mail services at its headquarters; in June 2015, J.P. Morgan followed suit. Eliminate voice mail, and how much longer are you going to maintain that landline—when all your people have cell phones? Especially in those professions in which “work” doesn’t really occur in the office, but in the field, or with customers—or in airport lounges, train cars, potential clients’ board rooms?

Business is holding onto landlines for—well, it’s a variety of reasons, some of them valid (Conference calls! Long distance costs! I don’t want to risk dropping that call), most of them sentimental. And McKenzie isn’t calling for the end of landlines (although, um… d’you know the personal landline number of anyone anymore? And if you do… do they ever pick up?). He’s calling for the same type of integration of business communication most of us have created for ourselves in our personal lives.

“Voice used to be a phone on your desk,” McKenzie says. We’re both so old we almost remember that. That phone on the desk was the way for clients, colleagues (ahem, headhunters) to reach you. Then came the cell phone. Do you remember—I do—being protective of that cell phone number? Giving it out only to the most trusted clients, intimate friends? (D’you still do that? You probably don’t—and if you do, there’s a reason your business isn’t growing. But we’ll talk about that another time.) “Now, we carry so many numbers. Home. Cell. Business.” Cottage? And when you look at a person’s business card… what number do you call?

As McKenzie sees it—there should be only one. That’s the philosophy behind the next generation hosted voice platform Shaw is launching this fall for its business customers. The buzz word is unified communication; what it means is the functionality of an old school landline (aka PBX—private branch exchange system) on a cloud-based platform with the collaborative capabilities of your computer, tablet and mobile. It means that if you’re a mega-business with an operator-receptionist, he can put calls through to your cellphone-deskphone simultaneously. With that internal four-digit number that’s a corporate PBX phone system’s equivalent of a hotel’s room-to-room calling. Imagine it. One voice mail to check…

(True story: if you call me, my voice mail will inform you: “I never check my voice mail. Please text or email me if it’s important, and I will get back to you ASAP. If it’s not important, please feel free to leave a message here.”)

There are all sorts of integrative bells and whistles on Shaw’s new offering, including almost limitless flexibility, scalability and customizable features. And it’s not just about voice: McKenzie’s most enthused about the overall integration of voice and data across all your devices—the ability to take a call made to your desk phone on your tablet or iPad if you’re on the data network, for example.

Me, I’m most enthused about this as a step towards businesses actively eliminating obsolete technologies. There are businesses, of course, that need extremely complex telephone systems. Is yours one of them? Or could you eliminate a hefty monthly fee—or, if you’re just starting up, a massive capital investment, not to mention the role of receptionist-operator at your company—by leveraging off the reality that we all have cell phones, tablets, and computers. That we prefer to work off our own devices, actually.

There are costs and challenges that come with that approach of course—but as McKenzie points out, there are also innovative, economic solutions.

I get off the phone (cell) with McKenzie. Save the notes of our interview on my laptop, and in the Cloud. Wonder if the next guest will plug in the alarm-clock-radio I’ve unplugged. See a text on my cell from my daughter’s iPad.

“Mom, the landline is ringing. It’s been like, 60 rings. It’s not you calling, is it?”

“It’s not. Um. You could have picked it up, you know. If you thought it was me?”

She gives me a “LOL.” Pick up the landline? Who does that? Why?

The hotel room landline starts to ring. I stare at it, stupefied. What the hell? Pick it up, gingerly, cautiously. “Hello?”

It’s the front desk. Calling to double-check that I’ve gotten my Wi-Fi to work. I say yes. Kinda wish they had just texted the question to me. I’d have sent them a thumbs up emoji.

Instead, we have a human-to-human conversation. It’s… nice. When I hang up—it’s satisfying to hang up a landline, isn’t it?—I feel an overwhelming urge to make a room-to-room call to a stranger…

I give the dusty, dirty landline instrument a gentle caress. I don’t love it as I love my cell. However can I? But we’ve just had a moment, it and I. And I’ll remember it with fondness when, five years from now, I’m in a hotel room without a phone or an alarm-clock-radio (the television, I suspect, will find a way to make itself relevant, even if I and my ilk kill cable).