5 Things You Didn't Know Your VoIP Softphone Could Do - PCMag

5 Things You Didn't Know Your VoIP Softphone Could Do - PCMag


5 Things You Didn't Know Your VoIP Softphone Could Do - PCMag

Posted: 08 May 2020 08:07 AM PDT

As the name implies, a softphone  is a software application that duplicates the functionality of a telephone, just on a PC or other computing device. Nowadays, such apps are standard equipment for most any small to midsized business (SMB) voice-over-IP (VoIP) service. On the surface, these apps are designed to mimic a desktop handset, with a dialpad and the usual phone features, like Mute, Transfer, and Hold. That makes them very easy to learn without the need for user training. But because they're software, these apps are often stuffed with more features that many users seldom access. For one thing, wherever you plug in your device and start the app is where your phone will ring, which is highly useful now that so many of us are working from home. But there's a lot of additional sophistication as well and much of it can help businesses deal with life during COVID-19. Time to crack the manual.

This long laundry list of features pertains largely to voice calling functionality and call handling features. For example, most vendors bundle conferencing, visual voicemail management, chat, and SMS functionality; but IT often overlooks these features when deploying to users since they're just looking to replace their current phone system with something else that costs less. Plus, VoIP systems can have a big impact on local network management, so IT sometimes likes to roll out new features more slowly so the new traffic doesn't choke other apps. 

But now that we're home, these local area network concerns aren't as worrisome. In fact, it can actually be easier to access more advanced softphone features in this model since home networks generally have a lot less traffic to worry about and manage than a typical business network does. And many of these less emphasized features can really help bridge the virtual gap that so many employees are facing during the pandemic, especially capabilities like video conferencing, file-sharing, project management, and even team communications

1. Make Video Calls


VoIP Video Call on a Laptop

The ability to make voice calls is often a key feature that attracts SMBs to a VoIP solution, especially now that workers are sheltering in place due to the coronavirus. The ability to have your business number on tap anytime is fantastic for quickly building a virtual business presence, but the ability to enhance that call with video can help take the place of social interaction, not only for customers or partners, but also simply for in-house, employee-to-employee conversation.

Take for example Editors' Choice selection RingCentral Office, which until recently made Zoom's popular video conferencing service available from inside its softphone app. The company has just released a new video client, but is deploying it the same way. That means using RingCentral allows users to hold or join HD video meetings where participants have the option to join audio through their computer, mobile app, or dial in using local and global numbers. SMBs can also collaborate in real-time with screen sharing and whiteboard functionality. 

Granted, the feature set offered by VoIP softphone solutions may not be as expansive or immersive as team messaging solutions like Microsoft Teams, or standalone video-conferencing giants like Cisco Webex. But many businesses will enjoy the ability to make a quick video call or enable some quick screen sharing on the fly right from their softphones without the need to deploy a whole new solution.

2.  Send and Receive Faxes


RingCentral Mobile App Fax Functionality

Sending and receiving faxes may not be a top of mind feature for many business users until they urgently need to sign and send faxed documents. And, surprising as it may seem, faxing is still a necessity for many legacy business workflows, especially those focused on healthcare, legal, insurance, and real estate among others. Being able to quickly receive faxes on a PC or smartphone beats having to dig up a dusty old fax machine -- or in these corona-times, dig up a separate dusty old fax machine for every home-bound employee. And it certainly beats having to buy, test, and deploy a separate electronic faxing service.

Solutions like RingCentral  make it easy to create a "new fax" in the RingCentral mobile or desktop app. Simply enter the recipient's fax number, add the message text, and attach files from DropBox, Box, Google Drive Enterprise, or any Microsoft Office application.

Receiving faxes is deceptively easy as well. RingCentral provides subscribers with their own fax number or they can use their existing number. Customers can receive internet faxes in their inboxes as email attachments which they can forward, file, or print. For SMBs that have desktops, tablets, or 2-in-1's that can take pen or stylus input can easily access and sign print documents and send them back as faxes. 

3. Send and Receive Files


VoIp File Transfer

One of the advantages of having a cloud-backed VoIP service is that because it's able to handle voice and video data streams, developers can enhance their softphone apps to handle other data as well. That means VoIP makers can add features like faxing (above) or simply the ability to access and share files. Team messaging and collaboration platforms like Microsoft Teams and Slack generally offer more comprehensive and instantaneous solutions for sharing files between users. But VoiP providers have started to offer such integration, too, as well as basic file sharing functions to help businesses conduct more work without having to switch between different services. 

RingCentral delivers a multi-faceted communications platform including business phone or toll-free numbers and unlimited business SMS. You also get integrations with Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft Office.  File sharing within RingCentral through Glip is convenient and intuitive, you can annotate documents without altering the original file. Shared files can be uploaded to tasks, calendar events, or directly through a chat message.

4. Team Messaging and Collaboration


RingCentral Softphone

With VoiP softphones already offering voice, video, and data sharing, it's a short design hop to get to team messaging and collaboration functions. As an example, RingCentral features integration with its Glip team collaboration app, which lets you have real-time or asynchronous conversations with coworkers in a space that favors brevity and directness. It also tosses in to-do lists, document sharing, a team calendar, and great video calling, all of which add value but also cost a bit more. SMBs need to determine if adding on a Glip subscription to RingCentral makes better sense than adopting a dedicated, third-party team messaging applications, like Slack or Microsoft Teams.

We're now seeing various business software vendors adopt new functionality into their products based on what their users want. We can expect  VoIP solutions to continue to integrate various collaboration features. 8x8 Series similarly features softphone clients using either the desktop app or the smartphone apps. Any of these methods lets users make and receive calls, check voicemail, or conduct online meetings using conferencing options that include support for chat, shared screen, and video conferencing.

5. Access and Manage Calendars


RingCentral Office Softphone Screens

Various VoIP products already integrate with users' contact lists, both a business-wide contact database as well as personal contact lists stored on PCs and mobile devices. This makes it easy to track and find contact's names and initiate calls. With that functionality already there, it makes sense to also provide access to calendars for quick scheduling.

RingCentral's My Calendar feature allows you to connect your work calendar, such as Microsoft Office 365 or Google Calendar, to the RingCentral app. This integration enables you to see your upcoming meetings, easily join a video or audio conferences, and schedule new meetings. Team events allows users to create team calendars so that everyone on the team can be in sync - it's useful for tracking project milestones, upcoming tasks, vacation time, and more. When you create an event in a Team, everyone will see it in Team Events.

8x8 and Vonage similarly offer integrations into Google Calendar to make scheduling of calls and conferences easier. The Vonage for G Suite Integration requires Google Chrome browser to work with the calendar.

Further Reading

VoIP & Phone Service Reviews

What is VoIP? An expert explains. - Mashable

Posted: 27 Apr 2020 02:13 PM PDT

If you've never heard of VoIP, don't panic. It's not an acronym people usually carry in their everyday vocabulary. But here's the fun twist: You're probably using it already.

VoIP — or voice over internet protocol — is just a fancy name for the FaceTimes, Whatsapps, and Zooms of the world (aka your best friends during quarantine). It is generally used to refer to a method of transmitting voice and multimedia communication via data packet from one user to another. 

That's unlike regular landline or cellphone calls, Reuben Yonatan, founder of cloud communication advising service GetVoIP, told me. Whereas those calls are often carried out by satellite, cell, or landline towers via copper wire and switchboards, VoIP calls rely on the internet. 

SEE ALSO: Best VoIPs — our top picks to get the job done well

But VoIP isn't just for phone calls, Yonatan added. "It's any sort of data packet you can send through the internet. It could be anything in the form of a voicemail; it could be a message; it could be a digital fax, like a PDF; it could be a video call."

Often, VoIP providers offer software and apps that can do multiple — sometimes all — of those things. And they do it for cheap, which makes their services increasingly popular among everyday consumers and businesses. But more on that later. 

First, some background

Zoom's supposed to be a business VoIP, but it's gained popularity with everyday consumers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Zoom's supposed to be a business VoIP, but it's gained popularity with everyday consumers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Image: SOPA Images / LightRocket via Gett

There are generally two types of VoIP, Yonatan said: There are those geared toward the everyday consumer, then there are the ones intended for business use. 

Consumer VoIPs generally cover features like messaging, as well as voice and video calling; anyone who has used FaceTime, Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, WeChat, and the like are already familiar with the service to some degree.

VoIPs for businesses, on the other hand, usually come with more advanced features like screen-sharing, HD voice, call recording, enhanced caller ID, and call forwarding. Think of companies like Zoom and Ring Central. 

But the line between the two are starting to blur. Ever since the coronavirus pandemic forced people to stay at home, business products like Zoom have been gaining traction from everyday consumers. Overnight, it's become a host for college lectures, blind dates, workout sessions, church services — even an inspiration for memes. 

"I don't think that their intended purpose was for my kids to be able to connect with their grandparents; their intended purpose was to become a business product," Yonatan said. "They kind of became this go-to social media platform of some sort."

Yonatan said Zoom's popularity grew in part because it is well-designed, comprehensive, and straight-forward. But part of it also has to do with the fact that the platform offers a highly competitive service via a cost-free model that allows users to access relatively advanced features and large group calls for up to 40 minutes each time.

The upside: It's cheap and multifunctional

Snapchat's group video calls use VoIP technology and is free across Apple and Android phones.

Snapchat's group video calls use VoIP technology and is free across Apple and Android phones.

Image: Snapchat

Businesses and individual consumers are transitioning to VoIP for a lot of the same reasons Zoom became popular during the pandemic: It's cost-effective, especially considering that it's capable of a whole lot more than traditional landline and cell services are.

"Most of the consumer VoIP products are free or really inexpensive. They're probably a few dollars a month," Yonatan said. And that's without factoring in the money people could save from international calling fees. 

The same goes for the business side of things, too: Whereas traditional business landline services cost about $50 to $70 per user per month, Yonatan said VoIP services cost just about $20 to $30 in comparison.

But there's more. VoIP is not just cheap relative to other communication solutions; it's also cost-effective in that it allows businesses and professionals to transition to work from home models that require less financial resources.

"They don't need to spend money on real estate spaces. They don't need to spend money maintaining an office and employees don't have to spend hours traveling," Yonatan said. "A lot of companies are going to figure out where and how they can make it work as much as possible."

The downside: It's bandwidth-consuming and susceptible to censorship

Your internet speed can get pretty slow if you're using VoIP on a jammed connection.

Your internet speed can get pretty slow if you're using VoIP on a jammed connection.

Image: Getty Images

VoIP sounds low-cost enough. But it might not work well if you've got a weaker internet connection — or none at all. After all, VoIP is an internet-based service that depends on ... well, good internet. 

"Everyone's working from home — and my kids personally, their classes are all on Zoom — and someone could be streaming something. We're really kind of congesting the internet line, and so what ends up happening is that it takes a toll on your web connection." Yonatan said. "You do need a pretty strong internet connection to support all the connection points you have throughout the house."

Of course, things can improve with increased data speed and reliability — and the adoption of 5G technology will help, according to a VoIP industry report by market research firm IBISWorld. Don't forget, though, that faster internet will cost you more money.

Another thing to keep in mind: Some countries can't access VoIP services because of internet censorship, and impacted VoIP apps run the gamut from Skype, to WhatsApp, to FaceTime. In those cases, you may not be getting the international coverage you need. However, bans on some business apps and softwares have been lifted temporarily to facilitate remote work and distance learning during the pandemic.

Data privacy and security

Make sure you evaluate how different providers handle data privacy and security if you're considering a transition to VoIP.

Make sure you evaluate how different providers handle data privacy and security if you're considering a transition to VoIP.

Image: Photothek via Getty Images

Unlike analog landline and cell services, VoIP transmit communication through digital data packets on the internet. That means you'll have to pay extra attention to how your data privacy and security are being handled by different companies.

A research from NYU's Center of Cyber Security shows that it's possible to track encrypted VoIP calls. But some VoIP services aren't even encrypted at all.

Zoom, for example, doesn't support end-to-end encryption, according to The Intercept. And in recent weeks, it's been proven vulnerable to a slew of security blunders: There's the bug that let hackers steal Windows passwords and the secret collection of LinkedIn data. Then there are thousands of private Zoom videos being uploaded online and account credentials being sold on the dark web. (To be fair, the company has promised to fix things after these repeated incidents.)

Of course, traditional landline and cell calls are susceptible to wiretapping and spams, too; but the internet makes it just that much easier.

Yonatan recalled how he stopped using Skype  — something he said he had used "religiously" five or six years ago — after being repeatedly spammed.

"Every time I would log into my spam account I would get like 20 or 30 friend requests from people I didn't know," he recalled. "Spammers basically just figured out my username."

Should I transition to VoIP?

Bottom line is: VoIP a good idea for your budget if you have good internet connection — just make sure you're adhering to the best security practices and paying attention to how your data is being handled. 

You'll have to make some decisions, though: Do you want a physical VoIP phone that resembles a traditional desk phone, or do you want a software-based phone that you can install onto your computers, phones and tablets? 

Physical VoIP phone systems tend to be more complex and expensive, Yonatan said, but you can also transform your good ole landline phone to a VoIP phone by using an analog-to-digital adaptor. 

If you are looking to pay for a residential or mobile VoIP solution, though, Yonatan suggests that you look out for a couple things: 

  • Get long distance calls. And avoid services that charge additional fees for them.

  • Don't migrate your existing mobile phone number to your VoIP provider. Yonatan has heard horror stories about VoIP companies holding customer's phone numbers hostage to cut down on customer loss. Just get a new number.

  • Don't let the provider sell you features you don't need. "A lot of these providers have very aggressive sales strategy in place," Yonatan said.

  • Read reviews and ask around. Chances are, someone you know have used a VoIP service.

  • Don't sign into a long-term contract. It's better to pay $5 extra on a month-to-month contract than to commit to provider you don't like, Yonatan said. Take advantage of that free trial, too.

Or, you can just do the thing everyone else do and use free apps like FaceTime, WhastApp, Snapchat, Google Hangout, and Zoom. They might just be enough for what you need.

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