Sometimes in the course of my business I get asked “What is a softphone? What can they do for me?”

So let’s take a look at that. What are softphones? And what can they do for you? Let’s also take a look at some free softphone alternatives — many of which are very good — so you can head down that road, if you so choose.

 

softphone

Softphones are an alternative to desktop based, traditional IP business phones. Although they make voice calls (or video and voice) over the Internet like an IP phone does, they run wholly on your computer. This means they require only a headset or at most a USB phone, thereby allowing you the use of more real estate on your possibly already overcrowded desk.

In order to usefully communicate, both parties of the conversation have to support the same VoIP protocol (H.323, SIP, or Skype, among others) and have at least one codec in common. A codec is a piece of software that is capable of encoding and decoding the digital data signal at both ends.

On one end of the call, the codec encodes the data stream for transmission. Once transported to the other end, the other user’s copy of the same codec then decodes the data stream for playback.

Although softphones typically offer a wide range of audio and video codecs, for the sake of compatibility, two that are typically included in every set (again, for the sake of compatibility) are G.711 and G.729.

Some softphones are fairly simple, duplicating only the features of a standard telephone (Hold, Transfer, DTMF tones, Mute, Flash, Do Not Disturb, and so on). Others take the idea a little further, adding features usually found in instant messaging applications. These include video, high-definition audio, and/or presence indication.

Other, more recent entrants to the field are adding Unified Communications features, such as offering to keep all of your contacts in one place, and high grade encryption of all calls, regardless of what platforms the calls are happening between.

With regard to that last one — sure, their site looks promising. But it’s going to be hard to fully encrypt a call if both platforms aren’t using the same software and the same codecs. So if the company I’m looking at is thinking about offering that encryption between their software running on one platform and their software running on a different platform, that’s fine. If they’re talking about their software connecting to someone else’s software running on a different platform … let’s just say I don’t look good in that shade of blue. I won’t be holding my breath that long.

The Free Softphones (in no particular order)

1. SJPhone — Created by SJLabs, SJPhone is a good-looking softphone that enables you to hold a conversation over the Internet using a notebook, desktop, tablet, and also a standalone IP phone. It will also allow you to use a mobile phone or even a normal landline. It supports standard H.323 and SIP industry open standards. It’s also completely interoperable with most major hardware and software manufacturers, as well as nearly every Internet Telephony Service Provider (ITSP).

2. Ekiga – Formerly known as GnomeMeeting, Ekiga is a full-featured softphone that’s available only for Linux distributions. It’s meant to be used under the GNOME desktop environment software. Ekiga uses both SIP and H.323 protocols. It also supports many other video and audio codecs as well, and also works well with other SIP software, not to mention Microsoft NetMeeting.

3. Bria — CounterPath Corporation would like you to try their X-Lite softphone as well, which offers many of the most-used features of their fully-loaded Bria desktop client. These include video and voice calls at standard definition, presence and messaging. Ultimately it is a paid service, but it does look great — and although there are plenty of free alternatives out there, you do get what you pay for. So caveat emptor and all that.

There are many, many other free softphones out there. If none of the ones I mentioned meet your needs, then just shop around. You’ll be sure to find one that does in hardly any time.

About The Author
Michelle Patterson is excited with the new technologies that are threatening to change the way we stay in touch and communicate, particular in business. She works with companies that are introducing these technologies to make understanding them easy for regular people.