The telephony industry used to be very tightly guarded and highly proprietary. Vendor lock-in was a way of business, that’s why you’ll find companies that have decades of relationship with a particular PBX vendor, and market penetration was quite difficult. When SIP and VoiceXML were in their infancy, smaller, agile companies saw the opportunity to transform the industry by offering products that were SIP and VXML compliant. Effectively these companies had an advantage to distinguish themselves from the rest of Big Telephony: We are first-to-market with the latest standards-compliant products. And being small the logical strategy was to release their products as open source in hopes of gaining market share quickly to maintain the advantage.
Asterisk, A (Lone?) Success Story
Unfortunately, there aren’t many successful open source telephony stories. Digium by far is the most notable. Huntsville, Alabama-based Digium, having roots in the Linux business, came out with the highly successful Asterisk open source PBX. One study done in January 2009 found Asterisk to have 18% of the North American PBX market, a statistic that any open source proponent should be proud of in light of the established competition from the likes of Avaya, Nortel, and Cisco.
Just six years ago in an interview with Rich Tehrani of TMCnet, Digium was already enjoying great success and beating Big Telephony:
RT: Describe the company’s growth.
Greg Vance (Digium): We’re growing very fast, in fact we grew 300 percent over this time last year.
RT: Are there any other serious open source PBX companies that keep you awake at night?
RT: What has been the reaction of Avaya and Cisco to all of this talk of an open-source PBX?
GV: We haven’t had any reaction from them. I think we are under their radar at the moment. However, the users are very enthusiastic. We have many who want to eliminate their Cisco equipment or interoperate with Asterisk. When they look at the price of these systems versus Asterisk, it’s a no brainer. We know that both Avaya and Cisco have Asterisk running in their lab, but we have not had contact with either company in a formal way.
But with customers demanding more open technologies and lower TCO, the traditional telephony vendors also had to innovate and adopt open standards in their product portfolio. That’s why today all of them offer SIP and VXML compliant products, too. The evolution was inevitable and crucial for the company’s survival in today’s Internet-centric and open access world. And it was an open source company which paved the way…
Threat to Open Source Companies
With Big Telephony embracing open standards, a threat looms for the smaller players, especially those who have open sourced their products. Granted, many of these open source companies also implement a “freemium” sales model where customers can get additional product features and/or services by paying a fee, but it’s still a tough sell especially to large corporations when Big Telephony can offer the same features with the backing of hundreds (if not thousands) of 24x7x365 tech support resources and other incentives.
Not only that, but Big Telephony has the funds to acquire technologies it doesn’t have in order to quickly bring into its fold new products and services to ride the market trend.
For example, Microsoft acquired Tellme to get a better speech recognition engine. Nortel got Periphonics for the voice platform solution. Cisco bought Audium for the voice application development tools. Genesys (an Alcatel-Lucent company) scooped up Telera and VoiceGenie for their voice platform and tools.
In other words, Big Telephony can throw money to get on the open standards bandwagon. Smaller companies, on the other hand, have to build their own bandwagon with blood and sweat.
Even Digium realizes it cannot solely depend on selling Asterisk. It also sells training, support, hardware (interface cards and Asterisk Appliances), and software (add-ons, codecs, etc.). Additionally, it sponsors trade show events like AstriCon, which is important because a good defense against this threat from Big Telephony is to grow your community of not just customers, but developers and other open source evangelists. I believe that the reason Asterisk continues to garner attention and fans is not only because of a good product, but because they are attentive to the user and developer community. Digium provides some resources to support Asterisk and also listens to what the community has to say.
Kansas City, Missouri-based OpenMethods is the developer of the OpenVXML service creation environment (SCE) and main contributor to the open source Eclipse Voice Tools Project (VTP). It is the only open source, platform independent voice app SCE that I know of. Its product is available freely for download and interested VTP developers can easily create plug-ins and enhancements. The OpenVXML runtime engine can communicate to the major VXML-compliant voice platforms from Genesys, Avaya, VoiceObjects, etc. — a great SCE tool to deploy apps across multiple voice platforms in an enterprise. However, much like Digium it too cannot simply survive by just offering a flagship product. OpenMethods also offers professional services in app development and Genesys CTI consulting, as well as a close partnership with RightNow Technologies to offer the only Gvalidated Adapter for RightNow CRM.
Just the other day somebody alerted me of an open source CTI solution, WYBECOM’s TALK. It’s something I’ve never even heard of, and I’ve been in this business for ten years. Obviously, Asterisk being the #1 open source PBX also has its own CTI solution, but that didn’t stop WYBECOM from coming up with their own. Another testament to how open source offers several alternatives and options for users and developers.
David vs. Goliath
At times the future may seem gloomy for open source telephony and tools companies, but I take comfort knowing that the Internet is in itself a sprawling open network. As long as the Internet exists, there will be daring open source entrepreneurs and flourishing open source communities. The Internet is also about interoperability and open standards — something that Big Telephony has started to understand but still hasn’t culturally adjusted well to it yet. It is still in the mindset of selling hardware and licenses and locking in customers.
Open source players in this business need to build a robust community, relevant partnerships, and innovative features to fend off the Big Telephony armada. Being smaller means having the advantage of flexibility and agility, and support of loyal open source fans. However, if they lose focus and stray too far from their open source roots, then they abandon the only thing that distinguishes them from Big Telephony. When that happens it will be David vs. Goliath, except David has no sling and stones.
Disclosure: I was an employee of OpenMethods.