Beyond the dialtone – PBX user experience revisited

When most of us think about PBX systems, we usually associate these with cumbersome usage, confusing dialing codes and in most cases – a PBX system is automatically associated with the annoying task of transferring a call from one handset to another. Lately, I’ve been thinking deeply about how people use PBX systems, is this really the only way to use a PBX system? is there something else to the mix? can we really enrich one of the oldest operational paradigms in the world? – and for that matter, can the public be re-educated to assimilate a new breed of PBX systems or services?

Hardware-based IP phone
Image via Wikipedia

As to answering the question of re-educating the public, I guess I’ll have to leave that question to the head shrinks. As to answering the latter, enriching the PBX experience is both achievable and advisable. When I say enriching, I mainly talk about your ability to bring to the IP phone functionality usually not associated with it. Imagine to have the ability to receive a stock exchange RSS feed to your phones idle screen, notice that you stock is either rising or falling, and by the flick of a button – either sell or buy. We’ve all come accustomed to IP phones that look like the one of the right. A whole bunch of buttons, that in most cases have no direct use when our phone is utilized using a single account. However, these buttons can be externally re-assigned and re-programmed to achieve greater functionality – surpassing the normal behavior of just making phone calls.

The technology involved exists on almost every high-end IP phone on the market (well, at least those made by SNOM, Aastra, Cisco and Polycom – most of the Chinese makers don’t have this) – it’s called a Mini Browsers. Mini Browsers are exactly what they are called, these are simplified versions of your typical Internet browser. Some vendors had produced their own XML based Mini browser markup language (SNOM, Cisco, Aastra) while others had decided to provide a sub-set of XHTML (Polycom). The variations between the vendors are at the neck deep of the problems of using Mini Browsers, and that is that the formats are considerably different. Sure, SNOM had more or less adopted Cisco’s general structure, however, it still varies.

Through the utilization of this technology, it is possible to create phone based browser applications, that seem native to the phone user, as the general interface resembles the native phone interface. It is now the developers job to make the web interface displayed to the user as seamless and as native as possible, keeping in mind that the developer must remain agnostic to the information retrieval layer. Most companies leave their phone systems and these tasks to their system administrators and infrastructure team, however, this task is far beyond their capabilities and skill set. Creating an agnostic IP phone minibrowser dislplay layer, capable of utilizing multiple vendors and models, is a question of content management and content rendering, very must similar to the content transcoding problem that is common to the mobile content world – in other words, a sys-admin will create an ad-hoc solution, a programmer will create a proper, well structured, well designed solution that carry the enterprise beyond its initial needs and requirements.

A short example of how these interfaces work can be found here – on my company blog.

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Open Source business sustainability

While Open Source projects around the world gather up the troops and become recognized for what they are: highly polished, highly effective, extremely economical products – the situation in Israel is fairly different. We’ve all heard about companies like Zimbra (recently acquired by Yahoo), MySQL (recently acquired by SUN) and others, which had struck BIG TIME. However, the situation in Israel differs immensely.

I’ve been invited to participate in a panel at the Garage Geeks, to discuss the various aspects of Open Source sustainability. I’ve made it my business to build a business completely surrounded by Open Source, devoted to the promotion and adaptation of Open Source – and when possible, the promotion of Open Source licensing models and the understanding of what they mean.

In one of my previous posts, I’ve indicated that Open Source projects are highly exploited in an illegal manner in Israel, thus, making Open Source business in Israel a high target for Open Crooks. The question immediately arises, how can an Open Source project become successful? In addition to that, what are the factors that make a good Open Source project a grand Open Source project.

Step 1: Features

For an Open Source project to become popular and frequently used, it should have an extensive range of features, which is constantly being upgraded and enhanced. Taking from my own personal favorite, let’s take a look at Asterisk – the Open Source PBX. Over the course of the past 5 years, Asterisk had evolved to include hundreds of features. Each new feature in an Open Source product expose it to a new market. With Asterisk, the introduction of an Answering machine detection tool had introduced it to the automatic dialer and contact center market. The introduction of LumenVox speech recognition had introduced it to the ASR market, and so on.

While features are important, it is also very important to make sure the features included are features that the community and users require. While it is really cool to have a mod_kitchensink for the Apache web server, no one really uses it.

Step 2: Community

In order for an Open Source product to become successful, it MUST have a vibrant and active community – better yet, more than one. While an active developer community is important for the advancement of the project, a set of auxiliary communities is required. A users community is a must, rendering support and usage ideas to its members. No less important is a business oriented community, one that speaks to the manager level people, those making the decisions in organizations. Tap into that level, and the Open Source project is now gaining followers from other side of the border.

Managers tend to be highly traditional in thinking, not inclined to utilize Open Source at first try. A vibrant business community of the Open Source project can do wonders to the project, especially with its promotion and adaptation into existing and new business structures.

Step 3: Funding and Sustainability

Funding an Open Source project doesn’t entirely mean – MONEY! Well, eventually it does mean money, but not in the normal way we think or work with money. Open Source developers don’t work primarily for the money, the driving force behind Open Source developers is different. Question be: “If Open Source developers aren’t motivated by money, why would you need funding?” – the reason is simple, the surroundings of an Open Source project require funding.

The surroundings of an Open Source project mainly include the following: public events, developer meetings, servers, hosting, travel fares, participating in trade shows and others. All of the above are generally associated with Marketing, however, marketing an Open Source project is sometimes as important as the project itself. If we are to examine the growth of the Linux community and user base in the world, we are mainly thankful to RedHat in its early days (1996-2001), closely followed by Debian with its recent off spring Ubuntu (2006-2008). Imagine, you can now go into an IBM dealer and ask to buy your notebook with Linux, how cool is that? how did that happen? did the world suddenly realise Linux is better than Windows? – the answer is NO! The marketing efforts of these companies had proven worth while, as the concept of using Linux as a desktop became common in recent years.

Step 4: Training and Certification

If your Open Source project is UberGeek targeted only, than you have a very slim chance of making it big. Lowering the bar on the requirements for the adaptation of an Open Source project is highly important and can be mostly achieved by training and certification. The training makes it possible for people to learn more about an Open Source project, while the certification makes the project seem more desirable and exclusive.

Why do people seek M$ and Ci$co certifications? simple, because they know these certifications mean something to manager level people and decision makers. The certification is a written (actually printed) proof that you know what you are talking about and that you are truly a professional working in the field of that Open Source project.

Conclusion:

If all of the above are met, you are surely on your way to create the next big Open Source project – and you are on your way to world fame and rock-star feeling.