Traditional PBX Makers Boast Flashiest IP Phones

Opinion: They have to. PBX vendors traditionally lock buyers into same-make phones, and phones are where they've made their money. Just as importantly, attractive phones are what sell systems.

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.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick 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.