Are you using a softphone or just a desktop client?

I’ve recently participated in sessions at two different industry gatherings where the topic was centered on what’s better, a hard phone or a softphone. The sessions were meant to argue the points for and against the need for a traditional phone device on the desktop. However, in both cases the questions and comments from the audience indicated that the end users didn’t fully grasp the difference between an actual ‘Softphone’ and just a ‘Desktop Client’ that had phone controls.

It seemed people thought if you could use your mouse to click on a button, and it somehow affected your phone call, then that meant you were using a softphone.

There were comments like “I use a softphone at home with my house line”. And even a customer of mine said, “We’ve been using your softphone with Polycom phones for a while.” Um, no, actually you’ve been using our client with the Polycoms, not our softphone.

 So what is the difference?  Well here is the definition of softphone from Wikipedia:

“In computing, a softphone is a software program for making telephone calls over the Internet using a general purpose computer, rather than using dedicated hardware. Often a softphone is designed to behave like a traditional telephone, sometimes appearing as an image of a phone, with a display panel and buttons with which the user can interact. A softphone is usually used with a headset connected to the sound card of the PC, or with a USB phone.”

I think we can all agree if it’s in Wikipedia then that is the accepted definition, worldwide. Since the current truth meter goes Wikipedia, Religious text, your parents, Fox News, and the New York Times, or something like that. :)

Actually, the only part of the above definition I would change would be swapping out the word ‘Internet’ and replace it with ‘IP Network’, as there are many large organizations that are using softphones to place calls that they do not drop onto the internet.

The definition for a desktop client is a bit more nebulous. But typically, it means an application loaded on a PC that sends messages to an application server, which performs telephony functions affecting phone calls. Those calls can reside in a traditional PBX or a newer IP/PBX and be terminated on a digital phone, old analog phone, SIP phone or even cell phone.

Both softphones and desktop clients have the same buttons, which perform the same functions, such as Hold, Transfer, Conference, Record, etc., etc. But there is a big difference in how they operate, if you’re using a desktop client and pull the power cord from the PC, you might have lost some functions but the call is not affected. If you are using a softphone and pull the power cord, your call is gone.

That last scenario was one of the driving factors we used in creating our SIP station and segmenting the audio from the PC. Contact center customers were looking to do away with the desktop sets altogether but didn’t like the risk, and sometimes performance, of running the audio through their desktops.

So, a softphone means the audio is being processed through the PC and sent through the IP network, but a desktop client, while it can effect a call, it does not actually process the audio. Apps/Clients on cell phones are a whole other story. Now if I can just get a definition for a desktop client into Wikipedia I’m all set……

Brad Herrington

Brad Herrington

As a Manager in the Solutions Marketing Group, Brad is responsible for the product direction and marketing strategy of the suite of products offered by Interactive Intelligence. Solutions Marketing is also the outward facing delivery team for webinar, seminar, analyst and media presentations as well as prospect and end customer demonstrations. His experience includes more than 20 years in the contact center and telephony industry, including the past 16 years with Interactive Intelligence focused on both the traditional and IP telephony markets.