The Eras of Voice

by Dave Michels

There’s lots of ways to look at the different eras of voice.

Jamie Stark

At Microsoft Ignite, Jamie Stark shared an interesting view regarding Four Eras of Voice. They were:

  1. Deregulation: Which allowed premises-based equipment. I suspect he was referring to Carterphone decision which was a 1968 ruling against AT&T that said customers should be allowed to own their own equipment. The PBX already existed, but it was rented. The ruling gave rise to the third party PBX industry.
  2. Circuit to Packet: This started in earnest with in early 2000s with voice over IP (VoIP). Because voice is highly sensitive to timing, packet networks were inherently incompatible. With the advent of “high-speed” 10 Mbps switched LANs, voice over packet LANs became feasible. VoIP research took off around 2000 and a few years later products starting hitting the mainstream. The initial benefits of VoIP focused on network convergence. For the first time voice and data network traffic could be combined on the same network. This meant things like one drop to a desk instead of two, one wiring closet, and one wire plant to design and maintain. It also meant that separate voice and data wide area circuits could be combined which offered numerous financial and design benefits.
  3. Packet Telephony Becomes UC: Eventually voice and data applications began to converge. CTI and unified messaging were the first use cases. Around 2010, the term “PBX” became associated with voice only and thus a prehistoric technology. I’ve said many times I disagree with this, but acknowledge that I am in the minority. The PBX managed to evolve through pull cords, mechanical switching, and digital to IP, yet for some reason that’s where the evolution ended. Of course all the PBX vendors evolved their products to UC – but the term “PBX” is toxic nonetheless. Cars have evolved for over a 100 years – and today’s Tesla is very different than the Model-T, yet we can still call it a car. Anyway, convergence continues to be a strong theme, but it’s not just physical stuff anymore – convergence includes all forms of comms (IM, SMS, video) and even beyond the seven layers to include servers, IT/Telecom departments, and CIOs. Jamie believes most of the market is still in this era.
  4. Full Cloud: This is what Jamie said we are driving toward, but we aren’t quite there yet. Jamie suggested hybrid as a transitional step toward full cloud.

These are reasonable eras particularly from a Microsoft perspective. I think Jamie oversimplified the first era. I would have segmented it further into the analog and digital eras (analog could also be further split into pull cord and mechanical switches). The digital revolution started in the 70s with mass market transistors and computers. Digital offered advanced features on the desk sets as well as digital TDM circuits such as the venerable T-1. Microsoft missed these voice eras.

Positioning the full cloud as a fourth/future era is contentious. There are plenty of robust, cloud-based, UC services available today. Providers such as 8×8, Vonage, Thinking Phones, Mitel, Shoretel, and of course all the providers using Cisco HCS and Broadsoft powered solutions. I’m sure they would all agree that full cloud is a viable option today. If so, what’s next?

I would like to offer two more potential eras that are on deck.

The next big one will likely be client-less communications. We are already seeing this with early WebRTC based solutions and it was the logic that motivated Avaya’s recent acquisition of Esna. It isn’t too much of a surprise that this future era didn’t come up at a Microsoft conference, but then Microsoft doesn’t share too much of its road map.

I also think Hybrid will become an era. Jamie pointed out that today hybrid is largely positioned as a transition to the cloud which allows organizations to leverage existing investments. For example, Mitel and ShoreTel also have hybrid paths to their cloud services, but not visa versa (as a path from cloud to premises). I believe hybrid has a more significant, long-term future. Providers such as Star2Star and Interactive Intelligence (PureCloud) are already using hybrid to create a cloud-managed, highly available architecture.  Microsoft does have an interesting hybrid play coming next year that uses cloud-based voice and admin with local PSTN – but again it’s a stopgap solution. I expect hybrid will emerge as a preferred architecture in a future era.