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Thanks, IPhone: Demise of the Desk Phone Means No End to the Workday

Photographer: Kohei Hara/Getty Images

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Photographer: Kohei Hara/Getty Images

Like most of his colleagues at Evernote Corp., Amitabh Handa no longer partakes in the morning ritual of wading through voicemails when he arrives at work. The reason is simple: He has no desk phone.

Of the 285 employees at the productivity-software maker based in Redwood City, California, just seven have landlines, most of them for customer support. So Handa uses an iPhone as his sole device.

It's a similar situation at Facebook with its staff of about 4,900, and at Google, which gives smartphones -- mostly Androids, of course -- to the majority of its 53,000 workers. At Box, a maker of cloud-storage software, employees recently received iPad Minis for checking e-mail and making business calls via Skype.

Silicon Valley companies big and small are pulling the plug on desk phones in favor of mobile devices. While consumers have been cutting the cord for years, businesses are joining the trend at an accelerating rate thanks to the increasing capabilities of mobile devices, which make it easier for workers to be productive and stay connected from any location at all hours.

"My job is that I always have to be on-call,” said Handa, a director of Web development at Evernote. “I'm reading e-mail in bed before I've gotten up to address the day. It's the last thing I do at night."

Photographer: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

In the next three years, there will be more people using a single phone for both their work and personal lives than those who maintain a dedicated personal phone, according to research firm IDC. Close

In the next three years, there will be more people using a single phone for both their... Read More

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Photographer: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

In the next three years, there will be more people using a single phone for both their work and personal lives than those who maintain a dedicated personal phone, according to research firm IDC.

For years, the line between our work and personal lives has been blurred by technology -- think back to pagers, car phones, and those early, bulky laptops that allowed us to work from home for the first time. The demise of the desk phone further erases that separation, and the trend toward fewer communication devices will likely continue. In the next three years, there will be more people using a single phone for both their work and personal lives than those who maintain a dedicated personal phone, according to research firm IDC.

Last year, the amount that U.S. businesses spent on voice landlines compared with 2008 fell 33 percent to $65 billion, according to a report by the Telecommunications Industry Association, a trade group. Spending is expected to continue to decline to $42.3 billion by 2016.

Demand for business land lines is plunging, cutting into revenue at phone-equipment makers, such as Alcatel-Lucent SA, Avaya Holdings Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. It also steps up pressure on service providers such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. to get more revenue from wireless sales and lessen their reliance on operations that are dwindling.

The desk phone’s “time has come and gone,” said Phil Libin, Evernote’s co-founder and chief executive officer. “It’s just a big distraction.” For those who must conduct a phone call, Evernote is planning to install phone booths where employees can have conversations that won’t disrupt their colleagues, he said.

“They probably won’t have phones in them,” Libin said. “We definitely don’t want to encourage phone use.”

The drop in landlines also reflects changes in how we communicate, said Steve Jang, the chief executive officer of Schematic Labs. His 15-person startup based in San Francisco makes a mobile app called SoundTracking that lets friends exchange music recommendations. Everyone in the company uses their own mobile phones exclusively and gets reimbursed for any data or calling overages incurred for business reasons, he said.

"You just don’t need desk phones," Jang said. "We talk over e-mail, text message, chat clients, social networks. "

But as desk phones decline and boundaries between the office and home disappear, workers will need to be disciplined in setting limits, said Brian Chen, the author of “Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future -- and Locked Us In.” While young professionals tend to handle the balancing act seamlessly, older workers with families and other responsibilities are having trouble adjusting, he said.

“How many jobs allow you to unplug anymore?" Chen said. "Because these devices are capable of juggling so many different tasks and because they're so connected to what we do for a living, we're going to carry around our work lives with our personal lives. We're going to juggle the two."

That's the case for Handa, who helped roll out a business-focused version of Evernote’s Chinese service last week. Since China is 15 hours ahead of Silicon Valley, Handa kept his phone open at the dinner table. He periodically poked at the screen to review progress reports as he chatted with his wife about work and his son about pre-school.

“Certainly, I'm guilty of using my phone in circumstances I shouldn't be,” Handa said. "I have periods of the day where it's purely family time. It doesn't mean I don't glance at my phone."

But in order to maintain his sanity, he recently disabled the setting on his phone that makes a “ding” sound every time an e-mail arrives.

Well, you have to start somewhere.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Milian at mmilian@bloomberg.net

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