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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I’m not rude, I’m eccentric

Polycom, Inc.
Image via Wikipedia

Today I got the chance to speak at a Polycom half-day convention, mainly to speak about Asterisk and HDvoice. Now, putting aside the part about HDvoice (I’m getting a post about that on its own), I gotten to the point where I believe that I’m currently perceived as being an eccentric.

So, why am I eccentric? very simple, I’ve reached a point where I can say things that may be perceived as rude – and write it off an being an eccentric quirk.

I’ve talked about Asterisk ability to support Video, while the current Polycom VVX1500 video phone isn’t yet supported at its fullest. One of the people in the crowd mentioned some sleezy,al-cheapo, SIP Video phone (to be more exact, he’s the local distributor) – and I claimed that I don’t count that phone as a comparison to Polycom or other VoIP Video phones, simply because in my view it’s not a worth while comparison. Comm’on, let’s be realistic, can you compare a Polycom VVX1500 (an HDvoice Video phone) with some shitty sub-VGA SIP Video phone from China? the mere comparison is simply insulting for Polycom.

Shortly after negating that phone, the person stood up and left the room. At the break, a friend said to me that I shouldn’t have said that, in order to come out the bigger man. Common, the guy is surely making a joke of himself. I commented: “I’ve said what I said, I stand by my opinion – besides, you know I’m eccentric – eccentric people say eccentric things” – he agreed that I’m eccentric, after all, you can’t be an Open Source evangelist without being an eccentric – now can you?

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