In a recent survey, Steve Taylor and Larry Hettick (Network World, 06/09/2008), found that respondents showed a serious demand for UC closely integrated with a Microsoft environment. Over 93% rated Microsoft integration with their unified communications solution as important or very important. Over 84% said Microsoft integration was more important than compliance with open standards. What the survey also found was that respondents just don’t see UC as a bolted on solution (i.e., as a hardware solution or a solution that lives outside of the data center). Not such great news for incumbent PBX vendors or network-based PBX replacement vendors, but good news for Objectworld and good news for customers.
The article took me back to 2005, when Objectworld was just set to release Objectworld Unified Communications Server, our flagship product. In the years previous, we had systematically rethought telephony. Dave Schenkel, Objectworld’s CTO, is the kind of engineer who has always innovated by making things simpler, more efficient, more practical. So, we asked practical questions. How could we make “telephony” more efficient? How could we integrate it into the Microsoft ecosystem? Why wasn’t telephony just like a database or ERP software or e-mail?
We decided to build a unified communications solution that would include unified messaging, call control, fax, text-to-speech and we integrated it with Microsoft Active Directory so that any IT professional familiar with Microsoft could easily administer the system. No more truck rolls for moves, adds and changes — everything would be done from a desktop, even remotely. It was about shifting not just telephony but how we think about voice communications away from devices and towards users. Only four years ago, this was still an enormous paradigm shift.
When we thought about positioning the approach and the resulting products in terms of a product category, we were at a loss. It wasn’t a PBX: it was an entirely software solution. Unified communications didn’t enjoy the ubiquity it does today, and more important, UC didn’t describe the end-to-end nature of our approach (and it still doesn’t). Calling it a phone system didn’t work either, since it was much, much more than just dial-tone. It wasn’t just VoIP.
In short, we didn’t have an available product category. There was nothing like Objectworld Unified Communications Server at the time. So, we came up with IT Telephony (we even trademarked it).
So, what is IT Telephony? Many of you who follow unified communications press and media will know that “IT telephony” is becoming an increasingly common phrase. Not as common as unified communications has become, but increasing nevertheless. But what is “IT Telephony” and what makes it different? Why did it stand out for Objectworld?
In our minds IT Telephony was necessarily a Microsoft software application fully aligned to the Microsoft ecosystem. Microsoft owns upwards of 90% of the world’s desktops and servers and that Active Directory is a wonderful management and administration tool. IT telephony reconsiders from the ground up (or from the PSTN connection in) the use, deployment, installation and administration of voice communications the needs of desktop users and IT administrators.
IT Telephony deals with the three most important aspects for broadening the appeal of unified communications and VoIP: a software solution that was easy for anyone to use and administer, integrated with the Microsoft ecosystem, that offered customers real choice over peripherals and services (like phones, PBXs, paging systems, ITSPs) with the assurance that it would all work together.
In some basic senses, Objectworld Unified Communications Server was a PBX-replacement, but in any meaningful sense, it was the opposite of a PBX. Where the PBX was closed, proprietary and inflexible, IT Telephony is open, integrated, flexible and interoperable. Where the PBX is difficult and arcane, IT Telephony is straightforward and uncomplicated for anyone familiar with any Microsoft-based software. Where the PBX requires a complicated and arbitrary sequence of numbers to be punched in just to accomplish the most basic functions, IT Telephony provides a point-and-click Windows-based interface that anyone can understand.
In short, where the PBX sat in the corner of basement to be managed only by specialized professionals, IT Telephony sits in the middle of the data center, on the desktop of every user, and on the phone of every customer and partner, and opens voice communications to anyone and everyone.
Today, a number of higher profile companies have picked up the phrasing. A few others have started to refer to their products as “Unified Communications Servers”. Companies that are hardware vendors are now software vendors. The market is more confused than it ever has been, and one can understand why: just imagine unboxing your newly purchase “software” solution to find that it’s just another hardware device just like your last PBX!
We’re glad these companies are trying to catch up, but at Objectworld, we’re already planning the next big thing.