The Role of the IP PBX in a Mobile World

There’s been a good discussion about the role and future of the IP PBX in a mobile world and as we become more dependent on our mobile devices.

Dave Michels wrote an interesting blog that asked the question, if you had to do without a phone for a week with minimal disruption, which would it be: the PBX/office phone or the cell phone? He noted that, “The vast majority of the people I’ve spoken to say they could do without the PBX phone.” You can find his blog at http://pindropsoup.blogspot.com/2009/01/pbx-needs-to-change-or-die.html

As I wrote in my UC eWeekly newsletter last week, http://www.nojitter.com/blog/archives/2009/01/mustdos_for_uc.html#comments, the switch vendors need to find ways to add value to their products and remain relevant. Mobile phones and services are becoming the predominant means of communication within the enterprise – even while working at the desk – and unless the switch vendors find ways of proving their value, they will be relegated to limited uses that mobile devices do not currently provide. Extending UC capabilities to mobile devices has been one of the key focuses of UC vendors but, on the downside, the value of desktop phones and, to some degree, the PBX/IP-PBX, has been greatly diminished.

One reader responded, noting, “I think the IP-PBX is still handling the bulk of the load today, and into the future. Cell phones and wireless devices are adding a lot of variety to the mix, but no one is pulling out their PBXs and going totally wireless.  What I see happening is greater diversity in the mix of devices and networks that have to all play together nicely; however, it is not an either/or situation with cell phones and IP-PBXs.  They will peacefully coexist and long into the future.  The real key is providing the real linkage points between the wireless LAN infrastructure, the cellular network and the wired LAN infrastructure.  This provides interoperability between cell phones, desk phones, PCs and handheld wireless devices.  People want to use their “tool-of-choice”, no matter where they are or how they are connected.  It is a tremendous challenge, but the real gem of UC.”

I agree with these comments, and certainly the IP PBX is still handling the bulk of voice communications, and will continue to do so. But there are lots of worker (not companies, but workers) who don’t use their desk phones at all, and just rely on their mobile devices. The PBX is still needed for many (and most) functions, but we all know that the mobile device can replace some or much of that functionality today (not all).

Another reader responded to the newsletter, noting: “I’m curious to understand what UC functionality app vendors need to provide beyond what the smart ones have done already. This is primarily by exposing more services and making their software generally more open and web based. Just not sure what specific UC functions they need to build. Technically the comm vendors add all of that functionality already as long as their architectures allow for mashing together of their respective offerings.”

Of course, integration with unified communications capabilities like single number service, screen pop, unified messaging, etc. is one way the IP PBXs have been adding more value for years. There are basic functions our cell phones can do that our office phones can’t – such as view missed calls and simply press a button to reply (although this can be made possible through UC), or have different ring tones for different callers.

Rather than adding specific functions or capabilities, what I should have said is that vendors need to make the switch more useful by providing vertical applications that are useful and relevant. It’s really a matter of finding useful applications that leverage the capabilities that are already built into the switch – including automated attendant, IVR, speech access, etc.  For example, One example Michels gives is “a simple K-12 demo, where the phones were the bell system, intercom, PA, text messaging system, attendance system, safety system, resource system (press 4 for projector reservation), confidential system (enter code to see important message from principal), training system, and work request system (press 2 for janitor).”
These capabilities already exist and it’s just a question of developing the applications based on the functionality PBXs/IP PBXs provide. And it’s hard to know what should be in the network versus on the switch – simultaneous language translation, for example, is probably better as a network service rather than a function of the switch.

I don’t see the death of the IP PBX (not for a while, anyway), but it’s important for the vendors to get creative and innovative.

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