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The audacity of Asterisk - why the 3Com/Digium partnership fundamentally changes the game in SMB telephony

digiumlogo.gifThe SMB VoIP game is changing. Fundamentally. And in a pattern we've seen before in other industries. In the news release out today, Digium and 3Com announced that:
Under the terms of the agreement, 3Com will offer Digium’s award-winning Asterisk Appliance™ to small businesses that need a reliable, easy-to-deploy voice solution based on open standards. 3Com Asterisk will be available through the company’s proven channel of partners worldwide.
Let's think about that for a minute. 3Com will make Digium's Asterisk appliance available through "the company's proven channel of partner's worldwide", which some reports are putting at around 60,000 resellers. Digium just wound up with a large global sales channel. Yet to be seen is whether there will be any channel conflict with existing Digium Partners/VARs, but regardless, Digium just wound up with a way to deploy Asterisk-based solutions globally. It does, however, get one step better (my emphasis added):
“3Com is focused on delivering products and solutions for converged secure networks, in which voice is an application that can be readily integrated with many others,” said Bob Dechant, senior vice president and general manager for 3Com Corporation. “We’ve announced a complete voice strategy and new product offerings for small businesses, including the 3Com Asterisk Appliance. We also offer innovative enterprise-caliber 3Com Global Services for customers who purchase the 3Com Asterisk. We chose to partner with Digium because of the company’s position as the Asterisk leader, its commitment to open standards and the ease-of-use of the appliance.”
Yes, indeed, Digium winds up with a global support organization behind Asterisk. Powerful announcement. Global sales and support - for an open source PBX... According to information from Digium, the "3Com Asterisk", priced at $1,595, will include a 3Com-co-branded interface and easy configuration/provisioning of 3Com SIP phones (as can be done today with Polycom phones). Given last weeks' announcement of the SwitchVox acquisition, I would think that rolling some of that GUI/functionality into the offering would be another logical step longer-term. The implications of this announcement, though, go far beyond the commercial relationship between Digium and 3Com. Those of us who remember Linux in the late 1990s and early 2000s remember that Linux took a trajectory like this:
  1. Techies/geeks/early-adopters started to install Linux into their businesses to solve specific needs. Often it was installed without corporate permission as a DNS server, web, server, etc.
  2. A range of small, specialized vendors started to ship servers with Linux pre-installed. Very often these companies were founded by people within the Linux community (ex. VA Linux, Penguin Computing)
  3. Larger, more mainstream but still lower-tier manufacturers started to ship servers with Linux. (I forget the first one I saw doing this.)
  4. Tier 1 manufacturers (ex. IBM, HP, Dell) started to ship servers with Linux.
Asterisk just moved to step #3 (after already moving through #1 and #2). While 3Com does not have the same market status as Cisco, Avaya and Nortel (or Mitel in SMB), 3Com definitely has a presence out there and to me their endorsement of Asterisk certainly brings a level of credibility to Asterisk-based software and hardware. It's good for Asterisk. It's good for Asterisk-based products and services (including those of Digium's competitors). It's good for open source. Ultimately, in my opinion, it's good for all of us.

Yet to be seen is how good it is for 3Com's own SMB offerings and that will be interesting to see. Right now it seems that they are all about "offering customers choice" between 3Com's own product and the Asterisk-based appliance. Will that last? Will 3Com continue to maintain its own SMB products long-term? Or will it cede that lower-end market to Asterisk and focus on apps that interoperate with Asterisk and/or phones for Asterisk (and 3Com's higher-end offerings)? Interesting questions to consider, particularly in light of 3Com's announcement on Friday that it is being acquired by Bain Capital and Chinese giant Huawei as well as their announcement today of new VCX systems targeted at the SMB market.

Nor is it clear to me how much of a short-term impact there will be on the SMB market. 3Com has been less of a presence in that space in recent years although its clear from their various announcements today that they are intent on playing a larger role in the space. Will Mitel, Avaya, Cisco, etc. lose any sales today as a result of 3Com selling Asterisk? Maybe. Maybe not.

Longer-term, though, I personally view this as a huge validation that open source telephony has a role in the business space. The cracks in the wall of proprietary telephony just got a whole lot larger today. Congrats to Digium and 3Com... and now the question is - who's the next vendor to get on board?

What do you think? Is this a validation of Asterisk? Or a flash in the pan? (Or as one more cynical person put it to me, "a desperate move by 3Com to stay relevant?") What do you see as the short-term and long-term impacts to the SMB market? Should the existing vendors be scared? Or just ignore it?

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