As IP telephony gains acceptance in the SMB market, it's not likely to be the products of mainstream IP PBX vendors that lead the change. Open source software, some say, may be the mechanism whereby IP telephony vendors bring affordable, reliable, and innovative products into the largely untappedand highly cost-conscioussmall-business arena.
So says Krithi Rao, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan. With so many basic telephony features already in place, she said, open source modules could free up vendors to build and market the kind of specialized products that will set them apart in the SMB marketplace.
A number of vendors already have made their play for small-business buyers in this way.
Fonality, for instance offers an affordable small business VoIP phone systemtrixboxusing open source PBX software. Intuitive Voice Technology incorporates a number of open source technologies in its Evolution PBX, including Redhat Linux and the industry's premier open source IP PBX, Asterisk.
Perhaps best known is open source VoIP vendor Digium, the original creator and primary developer of Asterisk.
If these and other vendors have cast their lot with open source, Rao suggested, it may have to do with the ready availability of advanced features within technologies such as Asterisk. A telephony aspirant could easily acquire functions such as conferencing and messaging by using open source components.
Maybe "easily" is overstating it, especially in cases where the vendor already has some proprietary-code product in its roster, Rao said. Integrating open source into proprietary code can be a bearthough it still can be a more efficient route than developing from scratch. "You can work around it if you have the technical capability," Rao said.
One advantage to an open-source enhancement is that such additions can be virtually invisible to the end user. If users are accustomed to a particular interface, open source code can be used to add features while replicating that existing interface. Because such capabilities are readily available within open source, Rao said, vendors can achieve a faster time to market than if they were building a proprietary enhancement from the ground up.
All that being said, it's worth pausing to remember the initial entry of open source into the marketplace. People were wary, especially over the issue of support. How would care and feeding work on free software?
These fears largely have been laid to rest in the enterprise world, but it can be expected that many of the same questions will come up again as telephony solutions based on open source begin to make their way into the SMB world en masse.
One way to allay those fears will be for vendors to assure their customers that the open source code driving their solutions has a strong following in the IT community. In addition to a high level of usage, "an open source movement is only as good as the community backing it," Rao said. To that end, "Asterisk has the largest communityand the most active one at that."
If established IP telephony vendors can leverage open source to break into the SMB market, the same is doubly true for newly emerging software companies, those for whom cost of development and speed to market are especially important.
With open source, such companies can go beyond such basics as conferencing and messaging, to instead focus on the industry-specific differentiators that attract small-business buyers. "The opportunity comes because everybody has been doing it horizontal, and now vertical strategies can become one of the key strategies to get into the SMB market," Rao said.
Decisions will have to be made along the way. Which open source code will developers choose? Asterisk is built with the capacity to interface easily with older phones and analog end points. sipX (another open-source PBX solution "sponsored" by Pingtel), on the other hand, requires an external gateway to connect beyond the SIP-based universe.
Both Asterisk and sipX are deployed on the Linux platform, whereas an open source code known as YATES operates on Windows. Another decision point.
How far will open source go as IP telephony moves into the SMB world?
Right now open source represents just 3 to 4 percent of all enterprise and SMB telephony lines shipped, Rao said. Nowhere to go but up? So it would seem. And there are upward indications.
Contact center software company Aspect Software for instance is reselling Digium's Asterisk Business Edition within its telephony solution, while 3COM has partnered with Digium to OEM its compact Asterisk Appliance.
"That kind of thing gives an idea of the estimated growth. You can see that it is going to grow going forward," Rao said.