PBX Users are Retarded

by Dave Michels

When I was young my teachers told me about the dangers of marijuana, and then retreated to the teacher’s “lounge” for a cigarette. Today, Marijuana is legal in my state, but tobacco smokers are ostracized. It’s funny how socially acceptable and politically incorrect shift over time.

Another example is the word “retard.” We now use terms like “developmentally challenged” or “learning impaired.” While there are important distinctions, to most people it is the term and not the illness that changed.

The term “PBX” was always a dumb term. It’s an acronym for Private Branch Exchange which doesn’t clear any confusion for the layperson. However, we came to know that the PBX was the corporate phone system.

Sometime around 2005, the PBX was ostracized. Not the technology (it’s alive and well today), but the term. The last major evolution of the PBX per se was VoIP. Once it was possible to integrate the telephony with other applications and devices, the term PBX gave way to Unified Communications (UC).

You can buy PBX functionality today – and many do – but few call it a PBX. None of the enterprise premises vendors make “PBX” systems any more (yet they all do). Some of the hosted providers offer “hosted PBX,” but only those targeting simple voice-only implementations. The term “PBX” is no longer socially acceptable.

It’s kind of amazing that the PBX evolved for about a hundred years, and then suddenly stopped. The PBX evolved from analog to digital to IP. Corporate PBX switchboard operators once used pull cords. Endpoints had no dialing ability, then came rotary dials, and then came touch-tone buttons. PBX Messaging went from pink “while you were out” slips to voice mail to unified messaging. The PBX was one of the most reliable and available computers that most organizations owned.

Who killed the PBX? it was a group plot. No vendor likes to sell a commodity, so even in the PBX era the term was avoided. Why buy a PBX when you could obtain a PABX, EPABX, or CBX? Around 2005, the vendors began running from PBX to UC as it was the next big thing. Now that UC is a common term, many are running away from it trying to differentiate: UCC, Collaboration, Universal Communications, and so on

UC can be a great thing – I get UC, and as you might guess I’m a big advocate of the technology and the benefits derived from it. Yet it is not for everyone. Many organizations (big and small) are very content with just plain old telephony. Hotels, for example, seem quite happy with quality, reliable voice services. For hotels, the PBX moved from revenue generating (long distance) to business cost. They want cheap and simple – which tends to be analog services like those that were used in the 70s.

Hospitals seem to like digital phones. Schools seem to like IP phones, but not necessarily any of the UC applications. Many organizations adopt multimodal communications, but don’t use integrated options. For example, one solution for voice, another provider for IM, another for conferencing, and yet another for video.To this day virutally all organizations use voice telephony and a smaller subset use various forms of presence, integrated conferencing, and video.

For these and many other reasons, the PBX is alive and well today. But it’s just as politically incorrect for a business to buy a new “PBX” as it is to give a retard a cigarette.