What looks like Skype and works like an open-source PBX? "Skype for Asterisk," of course.
A recently announced collaboration between Skype and open-source telephony solutions provider Digium, "Skype for Asterisk" aims to pair the cost savings of Skype with the versatility and functionality of the Asterisk platform. A Digium-built software connector bridges the two.
With a target market of small and midsized businesses, the partners are touting the effort as a potential big win, with 338 million worldwide Skype users and the tens of millions of Asterisk users. About a third of Skype users are business customers, so there may indeed be a significant market here. (Pricing has yet to be determined.)
Presently available in beta, Skype for Asterisk can be used in conjunction with Asterisk 1.4.x, 1.6.x, and Asterisk Business Edition C.xas well as the Asterisk bundles, trixbox and AsteriskNOW. Potential users can apply to participate here.
The Asterisk will deliver a range of features to Skype users, including automatic call distribution (ACD), along with the ability to ring incoming calls to individual Skype names, log incoming and outbound calls, handle voicemail, provide voice response (auto attendant) functionality, and deliver least-cost routingtypically, one supposes, through the Skype network.
Among its other functions, Skype for Asterisk has the ability to receive calls through a number of devices. An incoming call will simultaneously ring the user's desk phone and the Skype client. Prefer the audio quality on the desk phone? Don't want to turn off your music to answer the Skype line? Pick up the desk phone. The call is treated just the same. Or set the system to only ring one phone or the other, to make things even simpler.
Skype brings to the table flexibility, as for instance click-to-call functionality from Web sites, along with its promise of lower cost, especially free Skype-to-Skype calling. Outgoing Skype-to-Skype calls are recognized as such by the system and handled as free calls; likewise incoming calls from Skype users. Calls to and from non-Skype users are handled as ordinary calls.
This means, among other things, that a small business could create free connections between all its satellite offices, so long as all participants are Skype users.
By this mechanism alone, "we are going to save you money," said Danny Windham, CEO of Digium.
Certainly cost savings are a big part of the pitch here, but the partners are just as sanguine about the promise of expanded functionality that would come with an open source PBX, as noted above: Click to call, ACD and so on.
In the big picture, many in the SMB world will be tempted by the prospect of an open-source PBX if only by virtue of the added control inherent in such a solution.
Skype is to some extent a free-for-all these days, with individual users putting it to use at their own discretion, much as in the early days of cell phones in a business environment. Tying Skype to a PBX offers the possibility of bringing disjointed Skype use under the unified control of the corporate IT shop.
The ability to connect Skype to an open source PBX could have far-reaching implications, Skype VP Stefan Öberg told Enterprise VoIPplanet.com. He noted that Asterisk already forms the basis of many commercial products presently sold on the market. Thus, any product built upon Asterisk 1.4 or Asterisk 1.6 (Switchvox, Free PBX, etc.) should be able to utilize this new capability.
"Third-party vendors of products based upon the proper releases of Asterisk would still need to purchase the connector from Digium, but they could then bundle it with their application," he said.
At first blush the Digium relationship sounds something like the existing tie between Skype and VoSKY, announced last spring. In that hardware-based arrangement, VoSKY Exchange products add what are essentially Skype trunk lines to any existing PBX. Along with the Skype software running on a separate server, this brings Skype-based calling directly to end-users' desk phones.
Thanks to the Digium connector, Skype for Asterisk goes a step further, integrating Skype directly into the heart of the PBX and thus overcoming limitations such as the number of Skype operations that can take place at the same time.
The system has been designed to attract a broad SMB base. Windham estimates it would cost the typical small business user only a few thousand dollars to implement an Asterisk solution, based on the number of users and needed functionality. Add to this a few hundred dollars to set up the Skype component, and a fairly inexpensive yet flexible system emerges.