The FAX About Switchvox SMB 4

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Last week, Digium announced details about the upcoming release of the Switchvox SMB 4.0 IP PBX. The release represents the first major upgrade since Digium acquired Switchvox, and it is clear Digium is serious about this platform. The upgrade contains significantly more features than one might expect in a single release.

The press responded nicely, articles appeared in all the usual places – plus several blogs reported it. The announcement took place at Asterisk World (combined with ITExpo), during a time when the press was mostly consumed with negative news, particularly layoffs.

Switchvox SMB 4 is a major release. The number of new stuff in the release is in the double-digits; some of them quite major. In this post, rather than a me too version of the product announcement; I thought I would instead focus on the major features (IMHO) and perhaps more importantly examine what is missing from Switchvox SMB 4.

Big Stuff

So what’s big in SV SMB 4? Probably the biggest is IMAP support. The Switchvox SMB system is extremely feature rich, but its inability to do proper unified messaging was difficult to explain. The current and prior versions supported message SMTP forwarding – but no synchronization. Unlike many competitive solutions, this true unified messaging solution comes with no additional charge. So while not exactly innovative – it is a significant feature and rectifies a major deficiency.

Another major feature is Fax support via T.38. Fax protocols, the original nemesis of the IP PBX, are now supported. This means more than eliminating the dedicated analog line(s) for Fax – it also means support of fax over SIP trunks through the PBX to the fax machine. Plus it allows Switchvox to jump on the “UC” hype wagon – complete with universal inbox, inbound/outbound desktop faxing, and the other UC dangling participles (chat, presence, and video). Chat/Presence is being implemented via a new XMPP server on the system (I already have four IM clients running on my desktop so this doesn’t excite me). The video support is pretty primitive – phone to phone (like models) or softphone to softphone – no switching capabilities (MCU) and no ability to use a webcam with a standard phone. Presumably the video is also limited to calls within a Switchvox network.

Also among the big features announced in this release is Switchvox Extend – a new XML based API into the administrative console. This new API will allow other systems to do a variety of tasks including extension creation. The stated direction for Extend is to enable comprehensive access to all administrative functions. This is a fairly significant strategy and enables strong integration with vertical solutions; potentially intending to position fee-based Switchvox over Asterisk for developers.

Another innovative feature is the addition of the G.722 codec to support HD or broadband voice. Many of the Polycom phones now support what they term as HD voice and this requires the G.722 codec not previously supported on the Switchvox. Initially HD voice was only supported on internal calls, but it is supported over some SIP and URI (Uniform Resource Identifier – a phone “number” that looks like an email address) IP calls as well. HD voice is really nice, and some (not me) believe it will drive the next wave of VoIP. This codec addition will automatically make a lot of installed phones sound a lot better.

One major item that didn’t get much press with this upgrade is Switchvox is now based on Asterisk 1.4. This update is very nice to see and should solve a few problems. Asterisk 1.4 is the latest supported release from Digium (1.6 Beta was recently released). Conversely Fonality and many of the traditional Switchvox competitors are still on 1.2.

Missing Stuff

While it is clear Digium has been very busy with this release, a few omissions are noteworthy. The fist being no mention of Switchvox SOHO 4. Switchvox has always been available in two major versions, SMB and its bastard sibling SOHO. The SOHO feature set is stripped down; primarily no Switchboard client and no support of T1/PRI cards in exchange for a much lower price. This hobbling strategy tends to only work when competitors do the same, which isn’t the case in the world of small business phone systems. The lack of any mention of SOHO V4 signals Digium is considering a change of strategy around the SOHO offering.

Another missing element from SMB 4 is tighter integration with the cell phone. Unified Communications means different things to different people, but I value a strong story regarding mobility which isn’t there. The Switchvox solution is reasonably feature-rich, as long as you use a desktop computer (Switchboard, Firedialer, and now Notifier). The user that relies solely on a hard phone or the highly mobile user will find Switchvox lacking and none of the new features in SMB 4 really change that (well maybe IMAP).

A feature I would like to see supported in Switchvox is URI dialing. I just started making URI calls on my Switchvox Polycom phone – but that’s a feature of the phone not the phone system. In fact, there is no way to “dial” a URI via the Switchvox at all. If you dial a URI directly on the Polycom, there is no way to access any Switchvox features such as call record or even transfer. Dialing phone numbers is easy on a phone since it has a numeric keypad, dialing URI’s is harder and here I could really use a desktop client. Dialing URI’s is a bit on the leading edge, but the phones do it, the technology supports HD, and calls are generally free. Seems reasonable to expect a full featured IP PBX to support it particularly since the new version has many enhancements to the system directories (supports multiple numbers just no URIs). It is definitely a new world when the phone has more calling features than the PBX.

The final item I am sorry to see missing in the new release is a stronger solution around phone configuration and features. The phone token solution has been expanded to now support Snom phones instead of just Polycom, but core functionality has not improved. The typical Polycom phone sold with most Switchvox systems are quality powerful devices that can be configured to do a variety of advanced features (multi-line appearances, BLF, one touch macros, context sensitive softkeys, application ready microbrowser, etc.). The problem is to utilize these advanced capabilities requires sophisticated non GUI configurations somewhat contrary to the Switchvox point-and-click value proposition. The built-in phone wizard Switchvox provides allows only basic configurations – this area could use significant enhancement. For example, the new version offers presence information, but only through the Switchboard or Jabber client. From the phone I would like to access a directory, look up a name, see their status and dial without any additional servers or scripting; out of the box.

Pricing Changes

All the major features (minus one) announced in release 4 are included at no additional charge. Digium has not changed the base pricing for the product moving forward, and existing users with maintenance and supported hardware are covered as well. That’s pretty hard to beat. Even better, the upgrade process is very simple – literally a point and click process. The new fax solution does require additional per fax user licensing, but one box is included.

This means there are now three additional pricing components to Switchvox after the core software; a user license, a phone token, and a fax license. The first is required, the others are optional. It is confusing to me why they include so many rich features for no additional charge and then itemize these specific items. The phone token license is particularly confusing since its value is so limited and it primarily penalizes the dealer (end users expect the dealer to configure the phones).

 

There are three types of features in the world; innovative, me too, and deficiency correcting. Features from all three categories are found in this release. This post discussed in detail certain aspects of the upgrade, but please see one of the product announcement articles to obtain a complete view of the new release. The product is expected for general release in March. This release represents the single largest upgrade for Switchvox and provides proof that Digium is committed to the platform. I expect reasonable market share growth for Switchvox with this release; not just at the expense of other Asterisk based solutions either.

 

Dave Michels