Open-System PBXs Paved Way for Web Phone Control

Opinion: We first met fancy features such as unified messaging and find-me-follow-me capabilities in the communications servers of the early '90s-but now, they're IP-ified.

Some VOIP service providers are now getting big play out of the Web-based phone control they offer to subscribers.

That control lets a user see call logs with a browser, click to dial from the logs or from speed-dial lists, set call-forwarding numbers on a whim, set up conference calls through drag-and-drop and even assign alternate greetings to be played at different times of the day.

And you can see your voice messages in a sortable, caller-ID-labeled list, so you can delete the unimportant ones the way you do spam e-mails: unopened.

No one should think that VOIP (voice-over-IP) service providers have a lock on these productivity features—or that they invented them. These features and more have long been available to business users on PC-based, open-system PBXs, sometimes called communications servers, and they predate the VOIP phenomenon by at least six years.

Two of the earliest innovators here, running neck and neck, were Cambridge, Mass.-based Artisoft Inc., maker of the TeleVantage system, and Fremont, Calif.-based AltiGen Communications Inc., maker of AltiServ.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read about AltiGens release of AltiWare 5.0 for IP PBX.

With Artisoft using telephony cards from Intel Corp.s Dialogic and AltiGen using its own manufacture, the companies were able to apply all sorts of computer intelligence, database integration and Windows ease-of-use to the making and taking of phone calls.

Their LAN clients could not only control your desktop phone but could screen incoming calls as well, using Caller ID to pop up a corresponding Outlook or Goldmine record.

Back then, they occupied starring roles in the small to midsize business CPE (Customer Premises Equipment) division, in the field we called computer telephony.

As upstarts in a market competing with the SMB phone systems long sold by your local telecom interconnects–those of Panasonic Consumer Electronics, Inter-Tel Inc., NEC Solutions Inc., Vodavi Communications Inc., Toshiba, Avaya Inc. (then Lucent), Siemens and Nortel Networks Ltd.–Artisoft and AltiGen were also the first to put IP gateway boards into their server boxes. The boards let you route your voice traffic over your data network.

Both AltiGen and Artisoft now position their products prominently as IP PBXs, although they still sell about half of their units without the VOIP option. They have also upgraded their networking capabilities so that multisite companies can each purchase servers, as need justifies, and operate as if joined under one system while bypassing PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) tolls.

The upstarts now also face fierce competition from the legacy PBX makers, who have all adopted IP gateways or true IP core switching as well and have come out with lower-port-size, small-business offerings.

/zimages/1/28571.gifRead more here about VOIP offerings from ShoreTel.

Further competition comes from the data side: from the Cisco Systems Inc. camp, which bolted voice onto its data router and came up with the Call Manager IP PBX, from Santa Clara, Calif.-based 3Com Corp. with its NBX system, and from many others.

Next Page: Artisoft joins forces with Toshiba.