Tag Archives: Asterisk

Unified Communications: Why they’re all ‘Open’ now…

Polycom, Cisco, Avaya… It seems that everywhere you turn these days, unified communications vendors are declaring their love for all things open and standards based. This should be a moment for celebration. At this point, unified communications customers are supposed to be filled with a warm happy feeling that vendors all over the world are joining hands and working together in our best interests.  Yet in virtually all cases, it seems to me that the sudden conversion to the road to openness doesn’t always necessarily translate into an easier life for customers implementing unified communications: the devil is very much in the detail.

I know a thing or two about being ‘open’. I was one of the core team that decided on ‘Open Communications’ as Siemens Enterprise Communications’ positioning back in 2006. Our reasons for choosing that positioning were transparent. We saw a changing market, with new entrants from the software sector, service providers and the data market. We believed that everyone had some area of expertise, but nobody did everything brilliantly – including us. Microsoft owned the desktop in many companies, Cisco the data. PBX vendors understood voice and sometimes mobility, but were still learning about software. The unified communications market was also becoming increasingly entwined with the the applications space.

There seemed to be space in the market for an open neutral player that would work with a range of partners to bring together the best solutions for customers to get them to a unified communications environment built around their business needs, rather than what we wanted to sell them. We also believed strongly that we would need to focus on open standards, such as SIP (it helped that we had HiPath 8000, which was the only carrier grade SIP softswitch on the market at the time) in order to foster this culture of openness and interoperability.

This path was fraught with difficulty: Siemens had its fair share of proprietary platforms, not least the HiPath 4000 (which was the strongest product line at the time and remains Siemens’ biggest seller) and a proprietary culture. But we stuck with it and, over the course of three years we made some progress. We launched the OpenScape UC Server in 2007 and saw a genuine commitment and cultural change in the organization to build on standards-based platforms and work on partnerships across the industry. You can still see the impact that this change had on Siemens today, when they launch Beta Programs and social media integration for OpenScape – the philosophy really penetrated the company, even if it took a few years…

If I look around today, it seems that Siemens won the intellectual battle – at least at face value. Avaya launched Aura and declared themselves the champions of that open standards favourite, the SIP protocol. Polycom launched the Open Collaboration Network. Even Cisco have now decided that “that competition and industry expansion is best fostered through open standards and interoperability”, which is a long way from their position a few years ago. But I would argue that many of those decisions have been based on the need to integrate new acquisitions or being unable to offer a complete suite of unified communications solutions, rather than a ground-up commitment to open standards in the interest of customers.

Of course there is an argument in favour of being closed. Look at Apple. Working their own standards and building a walled garden enabled them to build the most successful music retailer on the planet. Their closed eco-system also allowed them to innovate in ways that Nokia, Microsoft and Co could only have dreamed of. There is a solid basis for the view that standards bodies stifle innovation and reduce inter-working to the lowest common denominator. But, like telephony before it, unified communications needs guaranteed interoperability if businesses are to derive maximum benefit and return on investment from the technology. It needs standards to enable companies to work together regardless of which vendor they bought their equipment from. I can see three key areas in which vendors could work together to deliver more value to customers than seems possible today:

  1. HD video interoperability. I know that progress has been made in this area (not least the Polycom-Cisco-Lifesize announcement last year), but wouldn’t it be fantastic if you could at least guarantee that you could make an inter-organization HD videoconferencing call out-of-the-box, without lengthy integration processes or long testing periods? The kit certainly costs enough and this kind of functionality should be a given today – and not just in a vendor-controlled demo environment.
  2. Presence engines. Again, the ability to integrate presence from all of the leading engines into unified communications clients should just be a fact. I’d also like to see the Holy Grail of presence: to offer secure federated presence, whereby I can choose which partners I trust and wish to share my status with, regardless of which organisation they belong to.
  3. Desktop clients and soft clients. It seems ridiculous that in 2010 any use of desktop phones on PBXs from third-party vendors is limited to the most basic of SIP call control functions. Maybe this area will never change now, given the expected decline in sales of desktop phone and the growth of mobile devices as alternative PBX extensions and WiFi clients.

I’m sure you can think of other areas – this is just my starter for ten. The industry seems to be taking steps in the right direction, albeit slowly. Yet all vendors have to make commercial decisions based on defending their own self interest, so I have to wonder whether vendors will really commit to giving customers what they want: the interoperability that would make unified communications truly unified and truly easy to adopt…

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Are Skype about to embark on a unified communications love affair?

Are Skype about to embark on a love affair with UC?

Last month Skype made an announcement that seemed to attract relatively little comment in the unified communications community, but which I thought was really interesting. They hired David Gurle as the new General Manager and Vice President of the Skype for Business unit. No big deal on the surface, but David Gurle has quite the reputation. Gurle spent more than three years running Microsoft’s Real Time Communications business. At Microsoft, he oversaw the development of collaboration products including NetMeeting, Windows Messenger and Office Communications Server. Roll forward a few weeks and Avaya’s Dr Alan Baratz made a slip during their partner conference that some interpreted as an indication of an imminent announcement of an alliance with Skype. All of this prompted me to think about the use of Skype in business and whether they are preparing to make a serious assault on the unified communications market.

Skype certainly have an interesting starting point for any attempt to build a unified communications presence. Although videoconferencing use is expanding rapidly, 79% of respondents to a recent survey by Global IP Solutions said that they currently use a consumer application such as Skype as their primary videoconferencing application. The use of Skype is also rapidly expanding for international traffic and many businesses are becoming more open to using hosted solutions for business applications, rather than insisting on premise-based equipment. Skype also carries many of the features that users would typically expect from a unified communications solution in a user-friendly interface that makes it easy for first time users to pick up straight away.

Having said all of that, Skype attempts to grow in the business market to date have been somewhat patchy. Skype for Asterisk, which was launched in 2008 is probably their most serious effort so far, allowing users of Asterisk-based PBX systems to place, receive and transfer Skype calls from PBX deskphones. Users can make Skype-to-Skype calls and the Skype client software is integrated with the PBX, which enables users to use Skype IM, presence and video conferencing. The main benefits for business are to reduce trunking costs and to give users in small businesses the opportunity to use a simple interface for UC type features. Yet because the market for Asterisk remains fairly small, the growth of Skype use in business from this avenue is likely to be limited.

Skype for SIP was a further attempt to make in-roads into the business market. Launched last year, its main purpose is to provide interoperability between PBXs and the Skype network. At launch, the software supported PBXs from Nortel, Cisco and SIP-based Asterisk switches, but reviews were somewhat mixed – it didn’t support some Skype features and SIP to Skype calling features were also somewhat limited. There have also been many other third-party attempts to build Skype gateways and even a custom built Asterisk platform (FREETALK Connect), which offers great functionality, but limited scalability. So most of the moves so far to take Skype into the business mainstream have actually been quite niche in their approach. Skype penetration in the enterprise has remained the domain of enterprising employees who sidestep conventional IT to install the software, in order to meet a specific need.

This need not be the end of the story though – and it probably isn’t if the Gurle hire is a statement of intent. Skype has much to gain in the business market, not least an even greater share of the estimated 406 billion international minutes of calls made annually. But I suspect that its future is probably not in partnerships with PBX companies and niche open source players – at least not if it wishes to move into the business mainstream. Instead, I would anticipate Skype becoming an even more disruptive technology and following a similar model to Salesforce.com. They could offer business users a combination of the features that many like, with the control that any self-respecting CIO needs, such as the ability to switch users on (and off), control usage and even connect domains for inter-company presence between trusted partners. Now that could be a powerful combination – and an interesting story to follow in the future.

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