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Realizing the Promise of UC with Open Source


August 22, 2008

Realizing the Promise of UC with Open Source

By Rich Tehrani
CEO, Technology Marketing Corporation


One of the promises of the Internet is leveling the playing field — giving individuals and small businesses opportunities to achieve a global audience for a particular message or product. The opportunities resulting from removing traditional barriers to entry has spilled over into the communications technology industry, where IP networks have been employed by service providers and developers in a variety of ways.

But, while the Internet might seem open, the traditional business model of creating propriety solutions has stuck around. Open source promises to finally break down that final wall. It is the vision of a truly “open” communications market that keeps Digium ticking. The company’s Asterisk solutions are helping developers make the most of their company’s investments in real-time voice communications technology, with the goal of creating affordable and flexible unified communications (UC) solutions.
I asked Bill Miller (News - Alert), vice president of product management at Digium, to elaborate on the ways that open source is changing the communications technology industry, and to predict that might happen next in a rapidly changing market. He’ll speak more about these topics during the “Unified Communications Solutions and Open Source” session at Communications Developer Conference next month Los Angeles.
RT: What has been the biggest communications development of the year?
Miller: We see the open source movement for two specific areas being serious contenders for this question: Digium's open source SS7 library, libSS7 that will enable many new applications based on open source telephony, and open mobile platforms (iPhone (News - Alert), Nokia, etc.) that will enable applications that no one has even thought of yet.
RT: How is open source changing your business?
Miller: In Digium’s case, open source is our business. We use open source across the enterprise which is now multi-site with growing number of employees beyond 150.
RT: What do you think of Google’s Android (News - Alert) platform?
Miller: We see hope and emerging applications surrounding Android. One of my colleagues is very excited to see it on a major vendor's phone platform from a major provider. The idea is very cool — we're obviously into open source. If it lives up to the hype, it should be an excellent low-cost platform for mobile applications. (It will be interesting to see if an Android-based phone can match the iPhone in terms of panache). We'll wait until we see a phone that actually runs Android
Another colleague has high hopes for Android, as it is one of the few (but not only) truly open platforms that has heavy support in the development world. More importantly, it has a lot of money behind it which is the only thing that gets things done in the wireless carrier market.
RT: Will the iPhone be a change agent in our sector?
Miller: This is a saucy question. We think yes and that it has already proven it, but not as much as everyone thinks. The iPhone is just the first of its new class of device. Android is more interesting. The concept of a good user interface (UI) on a mobile device has been a long time coming. 
Apple's iPhone platform puts pressure on the other players in the market (most specifically Nokia/Symbian, Motorola, Ericsson and LG) to focus on software and usability. The iTunes/AppStore component and its roots deep within the Apple business model show that the phone manufacturer can be more than simply a subcontractor for the carriers. It will be interesting to see if any of the "traditional" handset companies manage to execute something similar. 
The Apple iPhone platform is the thin edge of the wedge for "smart phones" to capture the majority of the market instead of the less than 5 percent penetration today.
RT: Who wins in a Nokia, Apple, SIM war?
Miller: Why only Apple or Nokia? Neither makes SIM cards. If the third is RIM, then the answer may still be Nokia. Nokia's product line is too broad. Add Android, and the mix gets muddier. Apple will continue to expand into the upper end of the market, constrained mostly by its necessary but awkward tether to AT&T. Nokia won't go anywhere as Apple does not appear to be interested (at least yet) in the commodity end of the market. Android could be an interesting choice but is not there yet.
RT: How has UC changed our market?
Miller: UC hasn't taken hold to the degree that it may at some future point. The definition of UC changes year to year; vendors spend marketing dollars and spin new stories. Users are confused. Fact is, the primitive interfaces on mobile devices coupled with carrier animosity have stalled UC in the high-end enterprise market, and even there it still is barely adequate. The opening of mobile handsets and networks will jump-start UC from a mass-market perspective, with Asterisk as a core component for service providers.
RT: Is Microsoft’s entry positive for communications?
Miller: I have answered this before with a qualified “yes!” Microsoft will spend huge marketing dollars educating their channel and sales force. Believe me, selling voice is a new experience for system builders, PC and server suppliers, and voice and converged applications are a new ballgame. This will take years for them to get it right. In the meantime, no one stands still. 
Microsoft will achieve some innovation and will add a great deal of enhancements to its existing ideas. Both will bring forward technology that will be useful for the consumer
We ironically see this as great for Asterisk and open source which moves ahead at lightspeed. People look at Microsoft's solutions and think "OK, we can do that with commodity hardware and software" and once they dig in and start comparing solutions Asterisk and Switchvox both show up as viable and much less expensive solutions.
The race is on: Can we scale Asterisk faster than Microsoft figures out VoIP?
RT: Will ubiquitous wireless broadband help communications development?
Miller: Certainly, but keep in mind that this is largely in the hands of the major mobile players and they're going to continue to be very careful to not rob from their lucrative voice and text businesses. Look at the decision by both Sprint and Verizon to nix their "Unlimited" EVDO plans, replacing them with plans capped at 5GB/month. That plus AT&T's absolute moratorium on tethering for the iPhone (both 2G and 3G) show that data still scares them. Perhaps if truly ubiquitous WiFi or WiMAX (News - Alert) becomes a reality we will see the true potential for unified mobile communications. Until then it will remain a stepchild and a niche solution.
WiFi as "ubiquitous" is a contradiction in terms, given the physics, security, and political issues.
RT: How have mashups and Web 2.0 changed the communications technology space?
Miller: We are at the beginning of huge change utilizing the Web capabilities with Web 2.0-based mashups. It's like playing with toy blocks instead of pictures of toy blocks. Now, the game is interactive. Ordinary people (or at least ordinary developers) can build tools that work the way they do. Mashups provide the opportunity for "grass roots UC" that wouldn't otherwise be there. Switchvox does a great job of utilizing this with the Switchboard.
RT: What are you talking about at the Communications Developer Conference and why should people come hear you?
Miller: I am on a panel with Zimbra called “Unified Communications (News - Alert) Solutions and Open Source.” We have been exploring possibilities of the future for building enhanced scalable unified communications and messaging solutions that are alternatives for companies to leverage proven open source products.
RT: What is one surprising thing we will see in the market during the next 18 months?
Miller: A major vendor will collapse, driving proprietary vendors to start opening their hardware and software platforms for better integration with the open-source world.
Learn more about Digium at Communications Developer Conference, the first and only IP Communications Developer event, collocated with Internet Telephony Conference & EXPO — the biggest and most comprehensive IP communications event of the year.   Communications Developer and ITEXPO will take place in Los Angeles, California, September 16-18, 2008, featuring three valuable days of exhibits, conferences, and networking opportunities you can’t afford to miss. Visit Digium at booth #OS 06 in the exhibit hall. Don’t wait. Register now!

Rich Tehrani is President and Group Editor-in-Chief of TMC. In addition, he is the Chairman of the world�s best-attended communications conference, INTERNET TELEPHONY Conference & EXPO (ITEXPO). He is also the author of his own communications and technology blog.

Edited by Mae Kowalke

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