It looks like the first victim in the Microsoft acquisition of Skype is Digium and the open source PBX – Asterisk. The following is an email sent to existing Skype for Asterisk users…
Skype for Asterisk will not be available for sale or activation after July 26, 2011.
Skype for Asterisk was developed by Digium in cooperation with Skype. It includes proprietary software from Skype that allows Asterisk to join the Skype network as a native client. Skype has decided not to renew the agreement that permits us to package this proprietary software. Therefore Skype for Asterisk sales and activations will cease on July 26, 2011.
This change should not affect any existing users of Skype for Asterisk. Representatives of Skype have assured us that they will continue to support and maintain the Skype for Asterisk software for a period of two years thereafter, as specified in the agreement with Digium. We expect that users of Skype for Asterisk will be able to continue using their Asterisk systems on the Skype network until at least July 26, 2013. Skype may extend this at their discretion.
Skype for Asterisk remains for sale and activation until July 26, 2011. Please complete any purchases and activations before that date.
Thank you for your business.
Digium Product Management
One has to wonder what will become of Skype Connect, Skype’s answer to SIP Trunking. Will Microsoft shut off the Skype Connect vendors (Cisco, Avaya, Grandstream, etc.) as well?
Original forum post here.
Most small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), of 500 employees or less, are just emerging from the turbulent waters of the 2008-2009 recession. Many of them have never been able to afford advanced communication solutions, but over the past year, they put all IT and communications spending on hold. With the first signs of economic recovery, these SMBs will start evaluating growth opportunities and looking for tools, including communications infrastructure and applications that can help them enhance their competitive advantage. Most likely, many SMB executives have heard about Unified Communications by now, but more likely than not, are still confused about what exactly it means and are even at a greater loss when it comes to figuring out whether they need it and how it can help them accomplish their goals.
That is why I decided to put some thoughts together hoping to help these SMB decision makers in the process of evaluating UC solutions going forward. By no means is this a comprehensive analysis of the UC market and all the solutions available today; rather, it is a brief overview of most feasible options.
1. Defining UC and Identifying its Benefits to the SMB
What is UC and does it offer any value to SMBs? Though definitions vary, UC is defined by most (including myself) as an integrated set of voice, data and video applications such as: telephony, instant messaging, voice/unified messaging, audio, web and videoconferencing, email, collaboration, mobility, etc. The key components, however, are the integrated (telephony and PC/online) presence and a unified client that allows users to click to communicate in various modes.
Application integration with presence capabilities and a unified client helps users communicate and collaborate more effectively. For a small business, however, the benefits are somewhat different from those UC presents to large, geographically dispersed organizations. The benefits to the latter have been widely discussed, so I will just reiterate a few: more cost-efficient conferencing (i.e. premises-based apps vs hosted services) helps virtual teams stay in touch, while reducing travel costs; video adds a new dimension to business communications; mobile and laptop soft clients reduce mobile communication costs and improve employee accessibility and efficiency.
The same benefits certainly apply to SMBs as well, however, the greatest value of UC for this segment lies in its ability to help users multi-task more efficiently. In a small business, most employees wear multiple hats (e.g. HR+accounting; business development+marketing+PR, etc.) and they need access to their business communications capabilities anywhere, anytime. The same UC features – mobility, presence, ability to switch communication modes (e.g. from IM to voice calls, etc.) – allow SMB employees to more easily move from one task to another, and from one role to another.
Another key benefit of UC for SMBs lies in its ability to improve customer service and brand reputation. Integrated auto attendant, IVR or basic ACD capabilities could enable a very small business that cannot afford an extensive contact center infrastructure to provide better customer service and also appear much more professional in its interactions with clients. Similarly, presence, mobility and various integrated collaboration tools can extend this business’s customer reach and improve lead generation as well as closing rates.
2. Needs Assessment
A key consideration for a small business, or any organization for that matter, is whether it truly requires all of the capabilities in a UC suite or it would derive significant value from just a couple of advanced communications applications. Depending on what the business’ current infrastructure is and what specific benefits executives are looking to accomplish, there may not be a need for a full-fledged UC environment. Maybe a simple IP telephony platform with a soft client and mobile extensions can help reduce communication costs and improve productivity at the same time. Alternatively, one of the more advanced IM/presence platforms with audio and web conferencing (maybe also video) capabilities can improve internal collaboration as well as external communications.
The first step in this process is, therefore, a careful evaluation of existing assets – age and residual value of the telephony platform and endpoints or remaining duration of a hosted services contract; availability of any IM capabilities, current use of conferencing solutions (applications or services), etc. Then pain points and areas of potential improvement need to be identified – e.g. high mobile costs due to frequent travel, high PBX maintenance costs, etc. Based on the findings from this process, decision makers can move onto evaluating specific UC solutions or individual communications applications.
3. Evaluating Options
While it is common knowledge that most vendors typically go after larger businesses for a higher return on their investment, there has been a major shift in vendor attention toward the SMB segment. As competition intensifies and most large businesses become saturated with advanced communications technologies, the SMB market becomes the next battleground for communications vendors and service providers as they seek new growth opportunities.
It would be logical and completely justified for an SMB looking to upgrade its communications infrastructure to first approach its existing vendor(s) or service provider(s). Most likely, such a business is running a platform by an SMB-focused vendor such as (in alphabetical order) Aastra, Interactive Intelligence, Mitel, NEC, Panasonic, ShoreTel or Toshiba. All these vendors have significantly enhanced their platforms over the past couple of years and most can offer an end-to-end UC solution with telephony, conferencing, IM/presence, mobility etc. Their solutions are typically very cost-effective by virtue of delivering all UC applications on a single appliance or in a single software stack and are also easy to implement and manage as they were developed with the SMB in mind.
Businesses should, however, look at some new entrants as well. Open-source telephony vendors such as Digium and Fonality do not only promote free code for those capable of putting together their own solutions, but have some turn-key UC platforms that offer advanced features and capabilities comparable to those of the incumbent vendors.
Microsoft’s OCS architecture is not (yet) suitable for very small businesses, but can provide significant benefits to a medium-sized business. It could represent a cost-effective alternative to existing disparate communications capabilities such as telephony, conferencing and IM as it offers all these capabilities in a single, tightly integrated, entirely software-based solution.
IBM, on the other hand, has chosen to partner with telephony vendors to be able to deliver an end-to-end UC solution to SMBs. Its Lotus Foundations platform enhanced with telephony capabilities from NEC, Mitel and ShoreTel is a viable UC solution for businesses looking to deploy a complete UC stack in a cost-effective manner.
Large vendors such as (in alphabetical order) Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya, Cisco and Siemens have recently invested a significant amount of effort in enhancing their SMB solutions. They have developed appliances and/or software solutions that combine various UC capabilities and are designed specifically for SMBs, eliminating the complexity and cost of large-business platforms.
Last, but not least, small businesses in search of new communication alternatives should consider hosted/SaaS/cloud UC services. There aren’t many complete network-based UC offerings (yet), but many service providers are considering the possibility of becoming one-stop shops for the entire UC stack. A handful of service providers including Apptix, CallTower, Cypress Communications, LightEdge, Verizon and USA.Net currently offer integrated IM/presence, telephony and some conferencing to their customers. The value of such services is primarily in eliminating all the hassles related to implementing and integrating advanced applications and then managing the entire solution on behalf of customers so they can focus on their core business. Such services also provide better business continuity and disaster recovery capabilities.
SMBs may also wish to keep a close eye on Skype and Google. They are mostly known for their consumer applications, but both are intent on penetrating the business space with bundles of UC applications. It is most likely that these two providers will offer some of the most compelling pricing and will also seek to leverage the cloud for delivering a completely new value proposition to their business customers – extending and federating communication and collaboration capabilities across organizations, integrating more freely and extensively with applications delivered by other service providers, etc.
UC options for SMB have increased over the past year and continue to proliferate. With vendors and service providers struggling for revenues and new competitive advantages, customers currently have the upper hand. In a UC procurement process, SMBs should first require as much information as possible from an extended set of vendors, encourage competitive bids, and boldly negotiate for large-enterprise features at affordable prices. Vendor or partner customer service throughout the process could be a good indicator of that party’s commitment to customer success. SMBs should also consider vendor/provider viability as a major criterion in selecting a new communications solution. However, since a vendor’s financial health is not always obvious, SMBs can ensure investment protection by looking to deploy solutions and applications based on open standards, SIP and SOA so that they can eventually integrate with or switch to other UC solutions.
Jazinga and Freetalk have combined efforts and the result is a Skype enabled SMB phone system called Freetalk Connect.
The press release:
FREETALK Partners With Jazinga To Create FREETALK® Connect
Companies Collaborate On Skype-enabled Small Business Communication System
Featuring Set Up In Less Than 15 Minutes
MIAMI, January 20, 2010 — As the result of a new partnership announced today at ITEXPO East 2010, FREETALK and Jazinga have created the FREETALK® Connect, a full-featured unified communications system that is the first to feature Skype for SIP and Skype for Asterisk functionality.
FREETALK and Jazinga collaborated in designing the FREETALK Connect, featuring a do-it-yourself (DIY) technology approach that can be configured in less than 15 minutes, enabling users who are not tech savvy to use it without formal training. This new class of DIY communications system allows anyone with basic knowledge of computers to install and maintain the office phone system. SIP, Skype and traditional PSTN phones can be plugged into the network, and the FREETALK Connect auto-detects and configures them. An onscreen wizard guides the user through setup. Adding users and administering the system after install is equally simple.
Further distinguishing the FREETALK Connect is its intelligent routing capabilities. Incoming Skype calls, as well as SIP, PSTN and IAX2 calls, can be routed to any local or remote Skype user, SIP, analog or mobile phone. Additionally, the FREETALK Connect enables users to set up “Find Me, Follow Me” features, and provides a unified mail box that consolidates messages from voice mail and email into one mailbox.
Some of the key features from the Jazinga platform found in the FREETALK Connect include:
Callback / Dial-around
Access to Skype Buddy lists
Auto Attendant / IVR
Music on Hold
The FREETALK Connect also has an easily configured and updated:
Managing routes to users, telephone services, and applications
Providing SIP/Skype telephone service management
Router management (networking, port forwarding, DNS, DHCP)
“Jazinga’s products consistently ensure call integrity by integrating quality of service and prioritizing voice traffic on the network into an affordable, simple product,” said In Store Solutions COO Craig Smith. “There was no question that FREETALK wanted to partner with Jazinga to develop the FREETALK Connect, because it continues our goal of working with the best providers to distribute outstanding products around the world.”
“FREETALK Connect is designed for small businesses with between 2 and 49 users, an undersold market that desperately needs UC functionality,” said Randy Busch, CEO of Jazinga Inc. “As a result of our partnership with In Store Solutions, the telecom technology playing field is much more level between larger enterprises and their smaller competitors.”
The the FREETALK Connect is marketed through Skype Shop, which is operated by In Store Solutions. The unit initially will be available to registered U.S. Skype users beginning in March.
For more information about FREETALK Connect PBX or to order a unit, visit
FREETALK is a product innovation catalyst – identifying market gaps and working with its global partners to design, manufacture and quickly bring to market products that disrupt traditional categories. Leveraging untapped market opportunities, FREETALK products are designed to be environmentally friendly, sold online and delivered globally at aggressive price-points. Always at the forefront of innovation, FREETALK is known for creating synergistic products that add unique value to its partners’ branded points-of-sale.
Jazinga Inc. develops communications products for small businesses and homes. The Jazinga system provides enterprise telephony and data functionality for this market, but at a fraction of the cost and without the setup complexity of an enterprise-class IP PBX. Jazinga Inc. is privately held and headquartered in Toronto, Canada. Additional information is available at http://www.jazinga.com.
Sue Huss, for In Store Solutions
Jazinga came to market a while back with a Asterisk appliance that is not much different than other you would find in the Asterisk market today. Skype recently announced their Skype SIP Trunking capability which is helping Skype become more open standards compliant, paving the way for deals like this one.
Since I have not tested the system myself I can only speculate that it is not huge departure from other Asterisk systems, which are not trivial to set up. Let’s hope they did their homework and come to market (March) with something that is much less technical and more end-user friendly, like Response Point.. was.
One thing that I find interesting is that it will be sold via the Skype store to US registered Skype users. If you were wondering what the connection is between Freetalk and Skype; the creators of Freetalk are also the curators of the Skype store. Ya, you heard me right. The company that created Freetalk (In Store Solutions) operates the Skype store. Which makes one wonder if there is overlapping ownership between Skype and In Store Solutions.
Something else that I find interesting, and not just because I am one of the founders of Xten/Counterpath, is how this announcement relates the recent announcement of the Asterisk/Digium softphone from Counterpath. Which may be why In Store Solutions decided not to leverage the Digium or Asterisk brand in this release, maybe they see the new Asterisk Bria softphone as a competitor in this instance?
I expect this will not be the last Asterisk-based phone system to incorporate Skype functionality this year, but it would seem as though they are the first, congrats to fellow Canadians at Jazinga.
Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with Tony Shen, Aastra’s co-CEO, President and COO. Since I won’t be able to make it to Aastra’s analyst event in Stockholm this fall, this meeting was intended to provide me with an update on Aastra’s performance and a perspective on Aastra’s strategy for the communications marketplace.
This was my first meeting with Tony Shen and I was really impressed by his practical, down-to-Earth approach to business matters. His answers and comments were straight to the point and appeared unembellished and sincere.
Some of the issues I raised included Aastra’s continued portfolio consolidation and adjustment since the multiple acquisitions including the most recent one of Ericsson’s enterprise business, Aastra’s vision for its position in the unified communications technology paradigm, and its strategy for an increasingly consolidating marketplace. Here follow some of the takeaways from the discussion with Aastra’s co-CEO (please note this is myinterpretation of the messages conveyed by Tony Shen):
- Portfolio consolidation: Tony Shen believes that, even as they stand today, the merged portfolios are more complementary than redundant. While, overall, the perception that Ericsson’s enterprise portfolio acquisition helped enhance Aastra’s large-business portfolio is fairly accurate, the major advantage from the acquisition was Aastra’s ability to rapidly (though inorganically) expand in several new markets including the Nordics and the U.S.A.Also, the different products in Aastra’s portfolio have different strengths and positioning in the different countries. For example, Aastra seems to have a strong #2 position in France(according to Shen), including the large business market, whereas Ericsson has been more successful among French SMBs. Ericsson is, however, strong among U.S. very large businesses including university campuses (note: Aastra is in this space with the Intecom acquisition as well). The former Ericsson large systems are also dominant in Sweden, Australia, New Zealand and Spain. Nevertheless, Aastra intends to further consolidate its portfolio to ensure maximum efficiency and will most likely share its vision and the details of a 3-year portfolio evolution plan at the analyst event later this year.
- Localization: In Tony Shen’s opinion, a key element of Aastra’s strategy and a major differentiator is its focus on localization, rather than globalization. He firmly believes that in Europe(where Aastra has the strongest presence), each country has different requirements with regard to communications infrastructure and one size does not fit all. He also pointed out some peculiarities of European business practices vis-à-vis American practices such as the general preference to avoid leaving messages in favor of communicating directly or through receptionists and secretaries. Going forward, Tony Shen believes the company will continue to develop local strategies and individual approaches for the more than 20 countries in which it operates.
- Unified Communications positioning: It seems that Aastra does not aspire to become a one-stop-shop vendor for the various UC applications. It is developing partnerships with others (e.g. Microsoft) in order to be able to provide certain components of the UC stack (telephony platforms, endpoints, etc.) where it has a competitive advantage.
- Growth strategy: Aastra’s focus seems to be on rejuvenating its existing installed base. Tony Shen sees a large opportunity in upgrading and modernizing the multiple legacy (Ericsson, DAMOVO, etc.) systems deployed around the world. It also intends to focus on maintaining and growing its market share in the countries where it has presence today. Aastra is looking at some emerging markets such as Brazil, Asia Pacific and Russia for new growth opportunities.
- Financial prudence: A key element of Tony Shen’s leadership approach seems to be his focus on financial prudence. He stressed the fact that Aastra has weathered the economic recession better than most other market participants due to its more conservative business practices. Aastra’s recent financial results seem to indicate that its leadership has a strategy in place that makes it more resilient in a tough economy. It reported record revenue for the year ended in December 2008, and Q2 2009 marked its 45th consecutive profitable quarter.
- Innovative business models through partnerships: Tony Shen pointed out that Aastra’s performance in Spain, one of the most hardly hit economies, actually improved over the past year due to the success of Telefonica’s “rental” go-to-market model, which helped drive sales in an unfavorable economic climate.
According to our most recent World Enterprise Telephony Platform Market study, Aastra held close to 9% market share in EMEA and ranked 6th in terms of revenues generated in the region in 2008. It ranked 7th in terms of global enterprise telephony revenues with close to 5% market share in the same year.
Given Aastra’s recent financial performance and Tony Shen’s focus on financial prudence, I have no doubt the company is likely to remain a viable competitor in the near term. However, with the massive technology evolution, market consolidation and considerable vendor repositioning in the enterprise communications marketplace, I have some concerns about its growth strategy for the long term. If Avaya’s acquisition of Nortel’s Enterprise Solutions business is successfully completed by the end of this year, market concentration will increase with the top four vendors (Avaya+Nortel, Cisco, Siemens, ALU) holding over 60% market share of world enterprise telephony revenues.
While customers are still likely to appreciate having more choices and to continue to purchase products from multiple vendors, growing market concentration is likely to effectively create a barrier to growth and entry to smaller players unless they have some very distinct competitive advantages. Those advantages may revolve around technology or specific geographic markets or both. Aastra’s country-by-country approach may, therefore, give it a certain advantage in the countries where it has presence. However, I do believe that it will be necessary for it to also seek to expand in new ones in order to be successful in the long term.
During my conversation with Tony Shen, I got the sense that Aastra does not have a strong plan in place for organic growth in North America(other than in terminals). While I agree with Tony Shen that this is a mature, fairly concentrated market with several very powerful participants and, therefore, a difficult place for Aastra to grow organically, I believe it needs to find a competitive spot in this market that offers some growth opportunities even if that involves yet another acquisition. In fact, the SMB vendor market in the U.S.may be due for some further consolidation with the large vendors (Avaya, Cisco, etc.) making a concerted push in this market segment, Mitel facing some credit issues, NEC and Toshiba having limited presence, open-source telephony vendors gaining traction, ShoreTel growing, yet being very small to be able to successfully compete against the established vendors, etc. If the SMB market remains so fragmented, it will be increasingly more vulnerable as the technology paradigm shifts and the market consolidates at the top.
Aastra may need to grow its indirect sales in order to expand its reach both geographically and across customer segments. Its localization strategy seems to warrant a more indirect approach to help gain efficiencies and economies of scale. Further, channel partnerships are becoming critical as the complexity of communications infrastructures increases, on one hand, and vendors compete for market share in a maturing marketplace, on the other.
Aastra will also need to send a more compelling message to the market about its vision for UC. The trend in the SMB market seems to be around the introduction of single-box solutions comprising all or most of the UC applications and offering an economical option for budget-constrained customers. IBM’s Lotus Foundations Reach with an integrated ShoreTel PBX functionality represents a recent example of how vendors are approaching the SMB space. While I believe that customers will continue to deploy best-of-breed technologies (versus all-in-one solutions) on many occasions, Aastra may need to develop some go-to-market partnerships for more effective marketing and implementation of complex, integrated UC environments.
There is a good chance my concerns will be addressed at the analyst event later this year. I look forward to updates from Aastra.
VoIP and SIP Trunking over best efforts Internet can cause SMBs to jump off the VoIP bandwagon rather quickly. Most small phone systems today do not have any built-in QOS (Quality of Service) monitoring, and those that do are likely not doing anything more than the typical MOS (Mean Opinion Score) based on historical packets.
MOS results are great when we are trying to see what the results were after the problem was detected and can certainly help with understanding some trends, but it does not do much to help SMBs understand why the QOS they are receiving from their current provider is sub par.
The truth of the matter is, the quality of service the ITSP (Internet Telephony Service Provider) is delivering can be high but there are factors that degrade that quality between the SMB’s LAN and the ITSP’s switch(s).
What can be done about it? Depending on your budget and technical acumen, something can be done or nothing can be done.
Most ITSPs who provide SIP Trunks or Hosted VoIP for business will not provide much more than a service status. Either the service status is “Active” or “Inactive”. This is not because they are intentionally holding back, they simply do not have the tools to be able to deliver more information to their users without breaking the bank. VoIP network tools are expensive and are generally not all that easily extensible.
There are some QOS monitoring tools that are fairly cheap and easily accessible. Some are even free!
VoIP Spear (free and paid) is a great little service created by Henry Fernandes at Toepoke Software. VoIP Spear uses ICMP packets (ping packets) to monitor remote connections. We have been using the service for a couple of months now and have made good use of the historical MOS data that the service provides. The only downfall is that uses ICMP. Most routers these days have ICMP echo turned off by default, mostly due to security concerns and potential inaccuracies. That being said it’s a great tool for acquiring remote MOS data and Henry tells me they are working on an API.
But what about ongoing call testing? Some say the only real way to determine QOS is to run periodic call tests that can report on call quality, connectivity issues, bandwidth, latency, delay, jitter etc. Again, tools exist but are expensive and are generally made to run at the top level of the network for network engineers, not SMB owners. Some router/switch vendors like Adtran do have some devices that will deliver on some MOS scoring and alerting but they again are not cheap, generally they start at $1200 (US) for the basics, which puts it out of range for many Canadian SMBs.
This begs the question, “SMBs should not have to concern themselves with QOS, their service should just work, right?”
Yes, it should just work, much like the legacy telephone networks have for the last hundred years. Why should the business owner be forced to accept dropped calls, broken conversations, 1-way audio, and the like, just because it’s VoIP.
The truth is, they won’t switch if they think the lines might drop or the quality might be sub par. Which might explain why so few SMBs have made the jump to VoIP-based systems and service in North America.
What can be done to increase adoption of VoIP for SMBs in Canada? The first remedy is fairly straightforward, ISPs need to increase broadband to small businesses and provide some application prioritization without dramatically increasing price. Considering ISPs want to deliver their own digital voice/VoIP offers, this might be a ways off.
What about better tools, integrated into the PBXs?
One could integrate some of the QOS monitoring/testing bits directly into the phone systems that are sold and by using open standards, provide a secure interface so the Internet Telephony Service Providers would be able to show QOS to their users via their user portals and the like. This would obviously require the pbx vendor to integrate the client piece and the ITSP would presumably host the web components.
This will allow VoIP service providers to show QOS data and provide controls around that for their own customers. Call testing details could be provided in real-time without spending tens of thousands to extend their current toolset to their users in a manner they will understand. This proactive self-support approach would also reduce inbound support for the service provider and would presumably help sell more PBXs for the vendor.
My rant for the week.