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Enriching Phone Systems with Online Status Indicators

Updated on August 23, 2013

Status Indication – a Much Needed Feature

Sometimes when you've grown up with a technology you become blind to its flaws. The same old method of using it seems so strongly ingrained into our lives, that we have difficulty imagining how it could be improved. The copper wire network is one such system. Humans don't like change even when it's good for them. So hardly anyone expects the creaking old PSTN system to suddenly change its colors – not to mention that it's impossible given its current architecture.

Online status indicators are something that are exclusive to the realm of the Internet. We're all familiar with the reassuring green lights next to our chat contacts telling us that they're available for communication at any point in time. So much so that many of us will simply refuse to send a message to someone who's currently off-line – why bother?

What we need however is to bring the same ease of use and presence information into voice communications. Of course, programs like Skype, GTalk, and Yahoo chat allow you to speak to anyone who's online. So there's no problem of presence information over there. But what about professional VoIP systems using regular telephones and telephone numbers? How do we implement it in such a way that you can tell if a person is already busy on another call before dialing?

The "Busy Lamp Field"

Many hosted PBX solutions provide presence information to their users. A VoIP phone is not like a regular telephone. It has additional interfaces and capabilities that reflect the sophistication of the underlying network. Most of them will have status indicators for your contacts in the form of a "busy lamp field" that will tell you when someone is already on a call and you shouldn't bother them. Little features like this remove the ever present friction when it comes to employees' communication. Many such tiny quality of life improvements make a big difference when they're all put together.

Disturbingly, it seems that Google is keen on devaluing the ability to easily tell if a person is online or not. In their recent Hangouts application, the status indicator is tiny and not very visible. In addition, contacts are not sorted by online status and so you don't immediately see a full list of who you can talk to. Of course, another major bug is that it doesn't show mobile users as online. Many have said that it's trying to achieve a more "phone like" interface where you just contact someone without first bothering to check if they're available.

Unfortunately, the traditional phone system is hardly the pinnacle of communications design. We should not get used to a certain limitation and then hail it as the ideal. SMS and the old phone network are technologies of the past. They simply don't possess the ability to have status information. But the Internet is different. Check out various business VoIP plans to find out which service gives you the features you need.

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