Converged softphone cuts bills

A new Windows Mobile softphone could cut mobile bills for businesses.

Cicero Softphone turns a Windows Mobile Pocket PC device into a dual-mode phone which can send and receive both cellular and Wi-Fi calls through the same dialler. When Wi-Fi service is available, the softphone will route calls across the Internet, otherwise it will default to using the cellular connection. Techworld has tested the system and found the basics work as described.

Based on the SIP protocol, the softphone is more flexible than other offerings, said Ross Brennan, chief executive of Dublin-based Cicero Networks. “While BT’s Fusion service forces you to accept a bundle including BT’s mobile service, BT broadband and the Fusion handset,” he explained, “ours lets you combine our softphone with whatever elements you choose.”

The device will allow fixed-line operators to offer a dual-mode service, but because it is based on the SIP protocol, and handles dynamic routing in the handset, it will allow enterprises to roll out their own system, in which a single phone will act as an extension to the corporate PBX when connected over the Wi-Fi network, or as a cellphone elsewhere.

Brennan expects fixed-line operators to ship the softphone on smartphones that will act as office extensions when attached to Wi-Fi. The package would be completed by the addition of contract SIMs to allow the devices to act as cellphones elsewhere. The SIMs could be sourced by the fixed-line operator, or directly by the IT manager, said Brennan.

“It’s not for hotspot users,” said analyst Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis. “It’s more for use on the home or office WLAN, where you have a decent quality of Wi-Fi in a decent proportion of building, and don’t have to mess about with scratchcards.”

Although other softphones run on Windows Mobile, including the mobile version of Skype, Brennan claims Cicero’s is first to dial both networks, and dynamically choose which to use. Calls can roam between Wi-Fi access points, and roaming active calls between Wi-Fi and cellular is in the pipeline, said Brennan, who pointed out that calls which roam between the office and the street are a minority of the mobile calls made.

The launch is timed to take advantage of plans for more converged phones, with Nokia promising that all its new enterprise phones will have built-in Wi-Fi. “Today’s dual mode phones aren’t really the size of a phone,” said Bubley. “DoCoMo has a clamshell, and quite a lot more are coming out.”

The softphone also handles text messaging and is integrated with the phone book on the device. Versions for Symbian are planned by the end of the year. “The handsets that will become available this quarter and next quarter will turn wireless VoIP from a possibility into a reality,” said Brennan.

For wireless VoIP to take off, the experience must be more like that of dialling a normal call. An integrated dialler, which handles routing, and smaller dual-mode devices, that are the phone-sized, not PDA-sized, will be a key, he said.

Cicero’s product also improves on the quality of other softphones, he said. It also reduces the final obstacle to wireless VoIP – the cost of converged devices – by creating opportunities for subsidy from fixed-line operators wanting to establish their credentials in converged phones.

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