Sick of hearing about the telecom revolution? Well, here’s one that wasn’t started by the marketing department.

by Jim Van Meggelen

About five years ago, the telecom industry tried to engineer a revolution. They called it convergence, and it was going to transform the way we communicated. Convergence was all about integrating telephones and computers.



And then it all came tumbling down.



I’m pretty sure the unfulfilled promise of convergence was a big part of what brought the telecom industry to its knees. Why? Because the industry never actually made the changes necessary to deliver the whole product in a way that allowed it to become ubiquitous – they didn’t open it up. The telecom industry was closed to a few large players with huge R&D budgets--and it was easy to stifle any true innovation. The few brave and innovative companies that gave it an honest try had a tough time of it; they had to interoperate with proprietary systems that had poor support mechanisms, adhered to few (if any) standards, and were only interested in this revolution if it proceeded at a controlled pace. The result? Products that cost far too much, and delivered far too little. It was inevitable that folks were going to stop buying all this - none of it was living up to its promise.



For the past five years the industry has been trying to engineer another revolution; they’re calling this one VoIP.



Voice over IP promises all of the same things that convergence was going to deliver (also promised by ISDN, back in its day) plus, of course, that elusive feature commonly referred to as “much more”. VoIP is supposed to spearhead the recovery of the entire industry. This time, we will attain dizzying new levels of enhanced capability and cost-savings.



Haven’t we heard this before? So what seems to be the problem, here?



It is often hard to understand why every other business technology is handled by an IT department, while telecom often remains off to the side. IT departments have been trying to integrate the telecom equipment, but there is a rift: the telecom stuff just doesn’t get along with the other equipment on the network. Not only that, but even with the manuals, it just doesn't make sense.



Here’s a research project for you: go to your local bookstore and try to find comprehensive documentation on telecom in general, and your brand of PBX in particular. Weird, isn’t it?



One could spend a lot of time analyzing the telecom industry, but who cares? The bottom line is this: that old game is now over. Finally; honestly; unstoppably; the revolution has begun. This is not some marketing scheme, though, but a proper revolution, started by people who are sick of the status quo and are doing something about it.



So what is this revolution? It's open-source telephony.



Telecommunications requires the same kind of flexibility that other communications technology enjoys, and the industry has had (and squandered) its chance to deliver it.



Perhaps you’ve heard of the PBX called Asterisk. The community that loves this little engine is fuelling the revolution, in exactly the same way that the Linux community did during the Internet revolution.



Asterisk is remarkable technology, not so much due to any new ground broken technically (although it does plenty of that), but rather for a far more important reason: Asterisk is open, and free (as in freedom).



Some of the factors contributing to Asterisk’s momentum:


• IT and Telecom geeks actually love talking to each other about it. If you don’t think this is significant, try talking to a few IT managers about how their telecom and non-telecom geeks get along.

• Commoditization of hardware and software. Twenty-five years ago, if you bought an IBM server, you also had to buy an IBM network, and IBM terminals. Now, a multitude of PCs, switches and servers can co-exist on a network. Shouldn’t the same be true with telecommunications?

• Finally, there is a toolkit that allows telecom professionals to devote their skills to the solving of customer problems, instead of finding kludgy ways around the limitations of proprietary systems.



Tim O’Reilly’s article Paradigm Shift, speaks about a lot of this. Telecom needs this kind of transformation--badly.



Asterisk can be programmed to emulate the capabilities of nearly any PBX in existence, and it’s still just a baby! I can’t help but compare this phenomenon to the way that NCSA Mosaic and HTML changed the face of the Internet. The Net had been around for many long years, but suddenly it was usable by anyone. Today, nobody uses Mosaic anymore, and pure HTML is rare, but together, they spawned a revolution. I often feel that Asterisk is a little bit like that.



Telecom is no longer closed: anyone can play. Phones have suddenly become fun!!!



If you've got an old machine sitting around, you can build your own PBX!



Viva Zapata!


Are you using Asterisk? If so, how?


2 Comments

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2005-11-11 07:22:13
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