Traditional PBX Makers Boast Flashiest IP Phones

By Ellen Muraskin  |  Posted 2004-07-08

Traditional PBX Makers Boast Flashiest IP Phones

IP PBX makers like Snom Technology and Zultys Technologies sell their IP PBX platforms to an early-adopter type of enterprise customer. This is typically an SMB (small to midsize business) whose decision-maker is sold on VOIP, free to take some risks and not all that concerned with the flashiness of the phone set. But these customers are in the minority. Theyre attracted to these makers by good reviews, but also by price.

The PBX makers with long pre-IP histories have to meet a much higher standard of functionality and design. They, too, have had to come up with offerings to compete with the Ciscos, the Zultys and the Snoms in embracing IP telephony. But unlike these newcomers, they do not enter the enterprise voice business from scratch.

They cant ask their existing customers to drop any of the features that their current PBX supports, which number in the hundreds. To take but one example: call "camping," used when one employee gets a busy signal while trying to reach another. The PBX "camps" on a desired callees line until it comes free, then rings both extensions and connects the call.

The established PBX makers have also had to outshine the new entrants in the phone sets themselves, because they dont want to cannibalize or downgrade their own market in digital phone sets, where the bulk of the profit lies. So, the IP phone sets of the traditional makers dont come cheap: They are now priced about 25 percent above their digital forebears.

Click here to read about AltiWare Version 5.0, AltiGens software for its IP PBX.

The vendors also have to assure current customers that they preserve legacy investment. This means that they can phase in these fancy IP phones desk by desk and still run the traditional TDM (time-division multiplexing) versions with the new, IP version of the PBX. Or with the new gateway cards that IP-enable the existing PBX.

A good case in point comes from Alcatel Internetworking, which calls its IP Touch 4068 an "application phone." Already out in Europe but available in the United States in September, its a rather convergent-looking animal.

It has a large color display and a small but very useable QWERTY keyboard below the usual number of keys, a nice feature for dialing-by-name and SMS messages. A cheaper model, the 4038, has the keyboard and a 100-by-160-pixel, gray-tone screen.

Alcatel calls this an application phone because, like those of Cisco Systems and others, its also a browser. As such, it is ready and able to take on third-party applications through an XML interface. Some apps, like OmniTouch Unified Communication, come from Alcatel.

This will be a small-screen version of the UC/soft phone/call routing app served through the users PC browser. Other applications will, of course, come through third parties. Think clickable, neighborhood pizza ordering from hotel-room phones.

The IP Touch also distinguishes itself from Alcatels digital sets with a rounder, sleeker, more Star Trekkian shape, and four-way navigator buttons largely influenced by the latest in cell phone—or perhaps hotel TV remote—design. It comes in a Bluetooth wireless option and also features wideband audio, bettering the sound quality of traditional telephony.

Next Page: Why IP voice can sound better than plain-old telephony.

Better IP Voice

Wideband audio is something VOIP makes possible, because given the bandwidth, LAN-based telephony can sample, encode and transmit voice at a wider range of frequencies than that permitted by the PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network), whose limits were set by the signal characteristics of copper wiring. Regular phone calls only pass along audio that fits inside the 300 to 4000 Hz range.

Thats why, without context, you cannot tell an "s" from an "f" sound; the distinguishing frequencies are clipped off. Wideband audio can pass along more of the spectrum.

This is a feature that reduces ear fatigue over long conference calls, says PR Manager Suzanne Crow of Siemens Enterprise Networks, which also incorporates the technology. ShoreTels VOIP systems boast wideband audio, too.

Of course, the IP Touch phone preserves all of the telephony features enterprise users have come to expect: speakerphone, headset port, soft keys, speed dial—here improved with screen-presented LDAP integration—and so on. The device sits at an accommodating tilt, so that it doesnt take up much more desk space than the phones weve known.

The phone will work with Alcatels OmniPCX Enterprise IP PBX and also with its small-office, built-in-router version, the OmniPCX Office. List price for the high-end phone? Craig Hand, demoing the booth at Supercomm, says $695. Hes tasked with driving OmniPCX Office adoption in the United States and freely admits that the price will come down.

The phones themselves could not properly exploit what IP telephony has to offer–or justify their prices—if they were not accompanied by easy PC GUIs. So, PBX vendors have released these newly aerodynamic IP phones alongside browser-based clients and soft phones, often designed (at great cost, they add) by behavioral scientists to be attractive and friendly.

Open-system PBXes trailblazed Web phone control. Click here to read more.

To some degree, these mimic the Web-accessible GUIs of the consumer and SMB services, allowing for click-to-hear voice mail, click-to-dial directories and call logs, black lists, white lists and fancy call routing. But installed among enterprise applications, these telephony apps can do more.

They can be populated with company dialing directories using LDAP, and can integrate with Exchange or Lotus calendars and contact lists. So that, for example, the system knows that whenever your calendar says youre out, all calls–or all calls from a specified VIP group–should automatically forward to your cell phone.

They can integrate presence, so that you know which of your colleagues are on the phone, which video-enabled, which in conference. They can screen pop Outlook contact records, matched by incoming caller ID.

Alcatels effort on this score is called its OmniTouch Unified Communications Suite. Its browser-based, will work with the TDM phone sets still hanging off the PBX, and comes in four distinct modules to keep the visual presentation as uncluttered as possible. Well try to look at the software side of the equation soon.

Check out eWEEK.coms VOIP & Telephony Center at for the latest news, views and analysis on voice over IP and telephony.

Rocket Fuel