Dave Michels
Dave Michels is a Principal Analyst at TalkingPointz. His unique perspective on unified communications comes from a career involving telecommunications...
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Dave Michels | February 01, 2012 |


Guess What Digium Adds to its Telephone System?

Guess What Digium Adds to its Telephone System? A new line of IP phones is specifically designed for the latest versions of Asterisk and Switchvox.

A new line of IP phones is specifically designed for the latest versions of Asterisk and Switchvox.

Today, Digium announced it is getting into the phone business, that is, actual telephones. The maker of Asterisk and Switchvox has previously relied on third-parties for its endpoints. The new line of IP phones is specifically designed for the latest versions of Asterisk and Switchvox, and though SIP based, also utilize a new proprietary technology for provisioning and features.

When Asterisk was new, few SIP phones existed. Digium and Polycom practically defined the segment together. Today, numerous brands compete in the market of SIP telephony--including major system vendors and Asian suppliers. Particularly popular in Digium's community are Polycom, Aastra, and Snom (related: see Astricon SIP endpoint slide show).

Third-party phones create a few challenges for both Digum and its dealers. The majority of Digium's endpoints are configured via a separate server, and cannot be managed or provisioned from Digium’s administrative screens. Over the past few years, Digium introduced "tokens" to simplify phone provisioning on its Switchvox system--sold and licensed separately. However, the wide selection in endpoints and distribution acquisition options complicates Digium's attempt to create a consistent and controllable experience.

Third-party SIP phones represent a double-edged sword for Digium. On one hand, such phones are readily available to dealers and end users at low cost, making Asterisk a financially attractive solution that requires no capital or resources from Digium. On the other hand, the fierce direct competition erodes dealer margins, as well as reducing the overall percentage of the total system spend that Digium captures. Additionally, limitations of SIP prevent Digium from supporting common phonetop features found on proprietary alternatives.

Digium believes that the new branded phones will offer both its customers and dealers a better and more consistent experience. The company has designed three new phones, with planned availability this Spring through Digium's existing distribution and dealer networks. The phones use SIP for basic operation, but a new technology known as Digium Phone Module for Asterisk (DPMA) will enable advanced application and provisioning features--no separate provisioning tokens required. Digium believes the new phones will both increase dealer (and Digium) margins while simultaneously decreasing initial and ongoing costs for end users.

All three of the new phones support HD audio, one has two lines and no labels ($129), one has four lines and paper DESI labels ($179), and the six-line executive set offers 10 soft keys that support 10 "pages" of programmable keys ($279). Users who require wireless options, video-phones, or softphones will continue to depend on third-party options.

The game changer part of this announcement is the DPMA--which provides Digium hooks into the phone with expanded control, or what Digium calls an "App Engine" including a JAVAScript API. This gives the Digium phones the ability to interact directly with core phone features--including presence information. Mark Spencer, founder and chief technology officer for Digium said, "We have a community of more than 80,000 users and developers who create amazing things with Asterisk. I look forward to seeing the cool apps they will create with these innovative phones. As usual, we’re enabling developers to create solutions limited only by their imaginations."

Digium has been running these phones internally for several months and has already developed a suite of productivity applications for both Asterisk and Switchvox. This includes features such as presence management, searchable contact directory, queue monitoring, recording, and visual voicemail--all directly on the phone. Probably the next step for Digium will be to adapt its Asterisk Exchange into an AppStore model to stimulate a developer network.

This is a bold move for Digium, and one that will no doubt change its relationship with members of the Asterisk ecosystem--not only endpoint competitors, but other Asterisk-based call manager competitors, too. Digium says it's willing to license its DPMA technology. The company also points out that this is not its first proprietary offering. DPMA follows a similar approach that it took with Fax for Asterisk and Skype for Asterisk.

Most significantly, if well received, it will have a significant impact on Digium revenue. Digium estimates there are over 1.3 million endpoints attached to Asterisk based phone systems and ACDs. The company is working hard to position these new phones as logical endpoints with aggressive pricing, richer features, and improved dealer margin. The Switchvox provisioning tokens effectively penalize users for selecting competitive brands. It is surprising that Digium is moving toward proprietary endpoints while a significant portion of the industry is embracing standard SIP endpoints. Even if the additional functionality was deemed as an absolute requirement, Digium could have created new 'open source' endpoints in an effort to lift all ships

The move may be bold politically, but the phones themselves are not particularly progressive or modern. It's a bit surprising to see Digium unveil a phone with such rich control that still uses a paper label. Black phones, with curly cords--a look that predates Digium itself--is a bit disappointing. The phones have virtually none of the features identified in some of the future phone posts from last summer.

The offering does round-out Digium's solution. It now has a far more complete offering for both end-users and dealers. It will eventually allow Digium to offer key system-like functionality solutions. It will also give Digium a boost in revenue, and positions the company with a highly unique value proposition involving open source, industry standards, simplicity, and new desktop features.

Dave Michels is a contributing editor and indpendent analyst at


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