"That's our conference room," the executive said, showing off his recently renovated office. There was the requisite wood table, and a dozen comfy chairs. The lighting was dim. "It's a pretty sleep-inducing place, actually," he confessed.
Sound familiar? In most companies, the conference room is the ceremonial setting for long, argumentative meetings that fail to produce consensus. More-productive gatherings tend to occur in individual offices, at small worktables, or in the kitchen.
Which is why the wireless conference phone is such a fine invention. One of the main reasons people are forced to meet in conference rooms is because that's where the conference phone is. So what if you could bring a high-quality conference phone to the places where work actually gets done?
Even though we've had cordless phones at home for more than a decade, it was only last year that two companies, Wave Industries and ClearOne Communications, began making untethered conference phones. The phones are quite similar: Both have two components—a base station that plugs into an electrical socket and a standard phone jack, and the phone itself, which can be plugged into a wall outlet for charging but otherwise operates sans cables.
Both the Olympia phone from Wave Industries and the Max Wireless phone from ClearOne can operate as far as 150 feet from the base station. Both share features you'd expect from a speakerphone: the ability to preprogram frequently called numbers, volume controls, a call timer, and a mute button.
The Max Wireless from ClearOne is the better phone—which is surprising, since its suggested retail price is $100 less. (The Max Wireless costs $699, the Olympia $799.) It looks sleeker, the speaker sounds better, and the microphone is more sensitive. Also, the Max Wireless boasts up to eight hours of battery life, while the Olympia phone claims just six. Both phones, unfortunately, have an annoying microsecond of delay when you dial numbers—which stymies quick dialers like me.
But the real breakthrough is the ability to migrate wherever there's a group that needs to make a call. Conference calling suddenly becomes pervasive. It can happen anywhere—and it even provides users with a convenient excuse for ending protracted calls: "Sorry, but the battery's running down here."
A version of this article appeared in the June 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.