While use of PC-based VOIP software is taking off in homes and college dorms, the use of softphones in companies remains somewhat mixed. They are having some success among road warriors and telecommuters, as well as telephone-centric workers such as call-centre agents.

Telephony software on PCs has been around since the 1990s, but the emergence of Skype and the wider adoption of broadband have made the technology more accessible and familiar than ever. Many companies also now support pockets of softphone users or even large divisions of travelling employees with the technology.

"The IP softclient is a big thing for us," says Steve Lydston, network manager for Nissan North America, whose company is in the process of installing Siemens softphone clients on more than 1,000 laptops for its executives and mobile users. He says deploying softphones on the laptops of executives travelling abroad provides measurable cost savings.

"Users could be ringing up hundred-dollar cell phone bills by making cell phone calls overseas," Lydston says. "If you're already paying $10 to the hotel for broadband, the calls are free over the softclient. Plus, the quality is about as good as a cell phone's, and a lot of times, it's better."

Nissan North America also is gaining productivity and cost savings with softphones without having to go through an entire corporate-wide VOIP upgrade, which could add cost and complexity, Lydston says. Softphone clients on laptops are configured to connect into one of several large PBXs. The clients tunnel into the corporate LAN with VPN links and access IP cards installed on the PBXs.

Overall, Lydston admits, the financial payback of softphones won't blow away the company's accountants. "It's more like found money," he says of the savings, which could run into the tens of thousands of dollars per month. "That's a drop in the bucket for a billion-dollar company like ours."

Unfamiliarity breeds contempt
What keeps softphones from becoming a killer app in other companies seems to be like the proverbial death from a thousand paper cuts. Some of the many issues include complicated PC sound configurations, end users' dislike of headset devices, unfamiliarity with softphone interfaces and the awkwardness of talking to someone over a PC instead of a handset.

"Quite frankly, softphones are more of a novelty than a real value-added type of application for us," says Phil Go, CIO for Barton Marlow, a Chicago construction firm.

VOIP is a mature technology at Barton Marlow, which installed a Cisco CallManager IP PBX and more than 200 IP phones four years ago. Go can rattle off dozens of benefits that IP telephony has made for his company, but softphones are not high on the list.

There is no such thing as making a quick call with a Cisco softphone client, he says. A user's laptop must first boot up, and then the correct PC audio settings must be configured. The VPN client must log into the network to connect with the Cisco CallManager. Carrying around a headset is another negative.

"End users sometimes have a hard time with all this stuff," Go says. "Plus, cellphones are so cheap these days, and it's so much easier and faster to pick up your phone wherever you are and make a call."

Skype still scores with smaller users
Perhaps the brand most known for bringing softphone technology to the mainstream is Skype. The little European start-up, purchased by eBay last year for $2 billion, has an installed base of 9 million users. Recently, the company launched a small-business VOIP service for organisations with fewer than 10 users.

Skype is used widely at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, where IT staff has found interesting ways to use the technology.

The college's IT department made Skype part of its standard PC and laptop software image distributed to computers for staff, faculty and students.

"We have a lot of offices abroad, with people doing research who can use Skype even if they don't have phone service," says Todd Bryant, language programme administrator for the college's academic technology division. "The IT staff likes it because they can send quick messages [via instant message] and share files as well."

Skype is a natural fit for the college's languages department, where Skype conversations are set up between Dickinson students studying French, German, Italian, Russian or Spanish and native speakers from those countries who are at a similar level in studying English.

"Language students can make a Skype connection from our PC lab and get bandwidth priority," Bryant says. "And if students want to record the conversations for credit, we have software for that, too."

What makes Skype so useful is its simplicity. "We started to try to do this before Skype came around," Bryant says. "But it's so far ahead of other applications, especially in getting through unpredictable firewall or NAT configurations. If you're calling up a random class somewhere that might not have good IT support, that's where Skype has a big advantage."