Elka Popova's Blog

Will Software Make Headsets the Smartest UC Devices in the Future?

15 Nov 2012 | by Elka Popova
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Maybe not the smartest, but certainly VERY smart!

Headsets have come a long way since the early days when they were just dumb peripherals with no intelligence of their own. Even those simpler headsets gave the user comfort and flexibility and the benefit of noise cancellation. In fact, I am using one of those now, mostly because of its simplicity and reliability.

There are new headset models available that offer advanced functionality such as call control, caller ID, voice recognition, and the increasingly important multi-device connectivity. Functionality and price vary significantly by model, but the variety of new headsets and headset features is increasing faster than the variety of new models and features in the desktop phone space (granted, the starting point is different). Headset vendors are now offering dual-mode and even triple-mode headsets—providing connectivity for mobile phones and soft clients, or for mobile, soft, and desktop phones. Noise cancellation and physical device specs (ergonomic design, size, coating, battery life, etc.) are also continually improving.

But the holy grail of future innovation in headset design is in software applications. Headset vendors are already competing based on the software capabilities of their devices, and this trend is likely to intensify in the future.

I wouldn’t venture to list and analyze all advanced headset models available on the market today. The leading headset vendors are all constantly announcing new models and capabilities, and are leapfrogging each other in terms of innovation. I would recommend, however, that you check out a few specific models, which I have tested and can speak about from personal experience.

For example, the Jabra PRO 9465 Duo offers some highly advanced functionality. It is a wireless, triple-mode headset that connects to mobile devices, desktop phones, and UC clients. It even enables conference calling with 4 headsets connected to the same base. One of the key benefits of this device is the Jabra PC Suite which enables remote call control. Headset users can answer and end calls away from their desk and softphone. The PC Suite can also be used with a corded headset, with the remote call control functions being placed either directly on the headset or as in-line buttons on the cord. I have used Jabra Go and Jabra PRO models and I can attest to their high quality and considerable benefits.

I have also used various Plantronics headsets. I am a bit embarrassed to admit that my favorite one is the simple, corded, desktophone-only headset I mentioned earlier; but it JUST WORKS! 

Plantronics does offer some highly sophisticated headsets such as the Savi 700 series, which features multi-device connectivity for mobile, desktop, and UC environments, as well as software support. However, its latest Voyager models, more specifically the newly introduced Voyager Legend, feature some truly unique characteristics. The Voyager Legend supports only mobile and soft phones, but it provides other benefits. It offers up to 7 hours of talk time; 3 Mics; significant improvements in wind noise reduction; caller ID/name announcement for incoming calls; the ability to answer or ignore incoming calls by using voice commands (though this is available for mobile phones only); and a voice recognition button for connection and battery status.

In addition, Plantronics has invested a significant amount of R&D into its Smart Sensor technology, integrated into the Voyager Legend headset lineup. The technology senses when the headset is on or off the user’s head/ear and makes smart decisions whether to connect the call automatically or to announce the call and wait for a voice or touch-tone command. Since the Voyager Legend also supports streaming audio, the sensor pauses the streamed audio when a call is coming in or when the user has taken off the headset. Putting the headset on the user’s ear also transfers ongoing calls from the handset to the headset. Using Plantronics Vocalyst technology, the Voyager Legend allows the user to hear e-mails and newsfeeds.

Another interesting capability on the Voyager Legend is the Find MyHeadset Android app, which helps you find a misplaced headset either by sending a tone and listening for your headset to respond via tone, or by reviewing recent activity and using the GPS capability on the cell phone to locate the last place the headset was used.

Plantronics is also focusing on contextually-aware communications—a strategic direction not uncommon among UC vendors, but relatively novel for a headset vendor. Its Smart Sensor technology and other advancements on the software side are enabling its devices to react based on the user’s status, availability, location, and other contextual factors. Through in-house technology development as well as partnerships, Plantronics is looking to tightly integrate the headset with various UC and other applications.

As mentioned earlier, software enablement is a common thread in headset product development and all vendors are more or less on the same path. But can they do it alone? The UC market has proven that no single vendor can sustain high levels of innovation without partnerships with other software developers.

It is significant that Plantronics has established its own developer community. Again, this is a common practice among UC vendors, but a new trend in the headset market (I still draw a line between core UC application developers and device/peripheral manufacturers, but maybe I will need to re-consider this classification in view of current developments). Plantronics’ developer site allows partners to download its SDKs and to access Plantronics’ engineers and documentation. Partners are helping Plantronics develop contextually-aware solutions through integrations with communications and collaboration applications (e.g., voice, e-mail, and conferencing), social media, CRM, sales force automation, analytics, and more. Partners include Datahug, Epilio, Five9, Interactive Intelligence, Jive, prairieFyre, PGi, Sococo, ThreeWill, and others.

Partner communities/eco-systems bring a lot of benefits to the vendors as well as their customers. Technology alignments provide partners with insights into each other’s R&D roadmaps and enable them to develop, test, and trial deeper integrations of their technologies. Such integrations result in more holistic solutions for customers and also spare them the cost and hassle of performing the integrations themselves. Furthermore, partner products and solutions are often incorporated into each other’s catalogs,  which provides opportunities for co-marketing and the ability to leverage each other’s reseller channels. Finally, technology partner programs help to increase visibility for smaller developers.

In conclusion, I believe that headset vendors’ increasing focus on software development and creation of partner communities and eco-systems will drive innovation in the headset market and will help transform headsets into smarter and truly multi-functional devices that enhance productivity and deliver superior benefits to customers.