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The PBX is Dead (Or Maybe the Term is Dead)

PBXs have taken a beating for many years now, and their death has been proclaimed time and time again. Is the time finally here?Customer premises voice communications systems have undergone major changes over the past few years, with a cataclysmic shift in design, hardware elements, and features. Though today's IP telephone instrument continues to resemble the desktop terminal of ten (even twenty) years ago the system it works behind has changed in almost every way possible.

Large proprietary equipment cabinets containing dozens of port circuit cards of all shapes and sizes are gone, replaced by real estate-efficient, lower cost, and reduced power requirement rack mountable chassis equipment (servers for call control and media gateways for select port interfaces) that can be fully distributed across a LAN/WAN. And if a customer wishes, they can lease hosted communications services and further reduce their equipment purchases and overhead expenses. The days of circuit switched PBXs are just about over; circuit switched Key/Hybrid systems for SME customers still continue to sell, because not everyone is ready for an IP communications system just yet. So are PBXs officially dead or what?

It's funny to think back to the first VoiceCon conference in 1991, when it was originally called "PBXs in 90s," because who knew then that the conference would far outlive the term used to describe it (though "PBX" had been around for decades). There was a lot of internal discussion about a new name for the conference at the turn of the millennium, even whether "Voice" should be used in some shape or form; I remember the increased number of sessions focused on data networking ten years ago. The term "IP Telephony" was also bandied about, but telephony itself was beginning to sound old. Other forms of communication, first email and then IM, have significantly helped reduce the number of voice-based telephony contacts compared to the old days.

During the past few years the focus of VoiceCon has been shifting from things telephony to things like Unified Communications (UC), Web-based collaboration, wireless communications and social networking. There is now also a lot of interest in video communications and SIP trunks based on the number of scheduled sessions dedicated to these two topics in Orlando later this month. There continues to be a session focused on telephones, but part of the discussion will be whether the desktop instrument will be gone before long (replaced by a soft phone or mobile device).

Perhaps now is the time to take the term "PBX" out to pasture and bury it alongside "Switchboard." I think that the term "IP Communications System" would probably be a more appropriate appellation in today's environment to describe a system from Cisco, Microsoft, or any of the traditional telephony system suppliers. The term "Unified Communications" should be avoided, because it is too vague (let alone confusing to most customers) about what the term describes, though many have incorporated it into the product name.

In the end, though, it really doesn't matter what you call the systems providing your communications services and features, though it is nice to have an accepted term of recognition.