PBX Needs to Change (or Die)

by Dave Michels


Pop Quiz: If you had to do without a phone for a week with minimal disruption, which would it be; the PBX/office phone or the cell phone?

The vast majority of the people I’ve spoken to say they could do without the PBX phone. Now, hold that thought for a moment.

Let’s rewind a few years, say 1990 and take a look at the value proposition of the two options. The PBX phone’s value proposition was simple. It was an office extension, probably with voice mail, offering cheap, feature-rich, and high-quality dial tone. The cell phone value proposition was similar functionally, but allowed us to trade quality and price for mobility. It was a decent trade for those that needed it.

Today, the value proposition of the IP PBX is largely the same (in fact for the past 35 years). VoIP is typically touted as a disruptive technology, and it is for many reasons. However, its core use and value isn’t turning out to be much different than digital PBXs (some notable exceptions such as teleworking and unified communications). Overall, “hold” and “transfer” remain the killer apps for the majority of PBX users.

Conversely, the cell phone has changed dramatically since 1990.It isn’t hard to find a PBX still running from 1990, but good luck finding a cell phone that old. The cell phone networks have improved their quality (digital) and coverage. They have expanded their services to include SMS and data applications such as e-mail. The voice price of cell phone service has dropped significantly (SMS and data costs have countered some of that). The cell phone is no longer reserved for the highly mobile, it’s now nearly ubiquitous among folks 12 and over.

But most importantly, how we use our cell phones is changing rapidly. We are using them in ways inconceivable a short time ago. Bar code scanners, GPS/map information, Twitter updates, even as cameras (I dismissed cameras in the cell phone originally). As their functionality increases, so does our dependence on them. To the point that organizations are starting to ban them (as distractions) from meetings. The value proposition of the cell phone has slowly morphed into a disruptor.

Over the past few years, PBX manufacturers started integrating their solution with the mobile carrier. I can now make, receive, transfer, and record PBX calls on my cell phone. Ironically, this is making the cell phone’s value proposition even stronger. Concurrently, there is and always has been a lot of frustration with the available options for VoIP cordless phones (wifi, dect offerings very limited).

Years ago I had a customer ask if the cell phone would replace the PBX. “Ha, no way” I laughingly replied. But, recently I am thinking it is inevitable. The cell carriers are already replacing the home land line and the home Internet connection, why not the business line too? Computerworld reports “Mobile Phones to be Primary Internet Device”.

Today we use our land line and our cell phone differently. For one to replace the other means the gap in functional differences needs to be eliminated. I don’t see the PBX manufacturers turning their offerings into national cordless phones (WiMax, no). But filling the void isn’t that much of a leap for the mobile carriers.

What will it take for organizations to skip the PBX and just go with mobile solutions? Before this happens, the mobile carriers are going to have to have to learn a few new tricks.

1) PBX Features.

Hosted Voice carriers demonstrate PBX features are easily available over a wide area network. Why the carriers don’t offer more features today eludes me – voice mail to email, unified messaging, voice mail groups, shared phone book, transfer, auto attendant, BLF, multi-line appearances, ACD features, Intercom (2 way radio), etc. To my knowledge none of the mobile carriers offer these basic PBX features yet. But seriously, how hard is it and what do you think will happen when they do?

2) Equipment Changes

A cell phone is not ideal everywhere, sometimes a real phone is needed such as a wall phone or maybe a call center. Some places will always have poor reception. Perhaps the TMobile plan of offering Vonage type broadband services makes sense (needs tighter cell/land integration). And/or cell carriers will need to offer large desk/wall mount wireless phones (wall phones, courtesy phones, conference saucers, etc.). Another option is cell gateways to PBXs. I recently read a clever blog posting for cell to PBX functionality via a cell to SIP gateway. Cell carriers will also need additional buttons on their phones – buttons like “hold” and “transfer”. Or, these could be context sensitive soft keys.

Many people already have a personal cell phone, and many don’t want to carry two phones. The carriers will likely start to push two line capable phones. A new hire could present their phone and have their new office extension applied to their existing phone simply and easily. Organizations could offer staff a base phone or if employees want something different they could provide their own. Likely a huge cost savings over PBX hardware. The new LG KS660 is a dual SIM phone, expect more.

3) Enterprise Management Tools

No, I am not talking about SNMP, but rather a powerful portal to manage a virtual PBX. The ability to manage and track costs (have you ever looked at a business cell bill?), features, call detail records, location, etc. Although the Cell phones don’t use “DIDs”, customers will need an effective tool for managing blocks of numbers (number, user/name, and device mapping), and system administrator rights for things like call forward override.

4) Reasonable International Rates

I don’t know how they get away with the rates they charge. Or at least the ability for customers to choose LD carriers (less likely). Organizations are not going to toss their PBX without more competitive rates.

Am I missing anything? I hope so, because these items are not too complicated to implement – spells doom for my favorite box. If the carriers offered all this, I think organizations will need to question the $300 brick on the desk (and its associated costs such as network switches, carriers, MACs, software assurance, administration, DR, etc.).

Let’s consider some objective facts:

  • Cellular build outs are nearing ubiquity. Nationally. Globally.
  • Cellular prices continue to drop
  • Carrier stores everywhere – think of the Mac Store’s Genius Bar model ready for business.
  • Acceptance of cellular quality
  • Continued drive toward mobility – PBXs are even pushing it
  • Increasing cost of copper and wiring.
  • Cellular networks getting faster, more robust. 4G.
  • Trends favoring pushing hardware to the cloud.
  • Incredible and fast innovation regarding cell phones and cell phone applications.

Here is the cold hard fact. People don’t like voice calls. It is hard to admit, but true.

  • How often do you check your voice mail before your email?
  • How often do you send an email, IM, or SMS instead of a phone call?
  • If you make a phone call and get a voice mail greeting, do you leave a message or hang up and send an email?

The whole UC movement seems about unifying all these tools/methods we created to avoid using the phone. If someone has a way to eliminate the phone system, there is not going to be a lot of people defending it.

Here is the problem, the PBX phone, though vastly improved and “feature rich”, still has one basic purpose; voice calls. And unless things change, the IP phone’s tombstone will read “Did voice well, RIP”.

The only way this will be avoided is if the PBX manufacturers enable the desktop IP phone to be a true feature-rich IP appliance rather than just a “phone”, similar to what the cell carriers have done. This should not be hard, the IP phone has unlimited “free” bandwidth (over the LAN), a decent display, interactivity (hard and soft keys), speaker, and a ringer. Not to mention it is always on. There is a lot of potential here.

I saw a simple K-12 demo, where the phones were the bell system, intercom, PA, text messaging system, attendance system, safety system, resource system (press 4 for projector reservation), confidential system (enter code to see important message from principal), training system, and work request system (press 2 for janitor). That might be a tough act for a cell carrier to follow.

Technically, these apps are available today, but not really. They are too limited, too much specilized development for too few devices. What will the killer apps be? No idea, I didn’t see bar code scanners, cameras, and GPS tracking devices on cell phones either. But I do know that if the manufacturers utilize an operating system model on their phones – that the apps will appear. Or if the form factor of the phone morphs into a more useful form factor for data apps such as the OpenPeak phone.

I don’t know if there are more Cisco IP phones or Apple iPhones sold (I assume Cisco), but I do know the enormous success of the App Store for the iPhone. I am reading about wonderful Android app ideas, including KEI, that will unlock and start your car from a bluetooth phone (we are more likely to lose our keys than our cell phone). I can imagine the creativity that would ensue if Android was implemented on VoIP phones.

VoIP isn’t dead, but it matters less. The MItel 5000 is a “hybrid” switch (that is code for ‘mostly digital’). A fairly inexpensive digital instrument with cat-3 cabling can offer just about every VoIP app now – presence, click to dial, UM, and UC features, I haven’t seen HD, but that won’t be hard. A VoIP extension could be added for teleworking. VoIP no longer matters – the problem is even the most expensive VoIP phones are still giving the “hold” button the premier real estate. My cell phone’s most popular buttons are “messaging”, “camera” and its navigation keys (not the “send” key).The Polycom phones at least offer “Directories” and “Applications” hard buttons, but they require backend servers. Consider the iPhone App Store again, how many of those apps require the customer to implement back end servers? None. Have you ever just tried to get the weather to display on a VoIP phone? (Hint: the weather will change before you are done).

Another Notch on the Cell Phone Case?

The cell phone is a serial killer. It got the answering machine, PDA, and payphone, it is hoping to finish off the home landline and it’s looking at broadband services (ie Vonage), residential broadband Internet and the PBX. It is a dangerous killer because we love it so, no other gadget generates the excitement, endorphins and loyalty it does (let’s camp out to be among the first to get the new model). Even the most loyal of the Asterisk open source VoIP folks love the iPhone despite its proprietary hardware, vendor app control, high price, and long term contracts. Endorphins vs. logic win every time.

The PBX needs to wake-up, or die. It needs to dramatically improve its value, or it will be killed by the sleeper disruptive technology of the mobile phone. Today, organizations are willing to pay for two phone systems, but won’t if their propositions significantly overlap. A future not too difficult to imagine. Let’s return to the pop quiz question above and change it to which phone can you live without completely? I fear the same answer.

One last parable: I believe all phone systems should have a reminder or wake-up call system built-in. I shared this with some folks at a major IP PBX maker. I got the impression they didn’t agree. I’ve retold this story to a few people that have iPhones. Their response is “why don’t you get an iPhone? it has a great alarm feature I use every day”. That just might be the solution.