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Asterisk: The Future of Telephony by Leif Madsen, Jared Smith, Jim Van Meggelen

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Massive Change Requires Flexible Technology

The most successful key telephone system in the world has a design limitation that has survived 15 years of users begging for what appears to be a simple change: when you determine the number of times your phone will ring before it forwards to voicemail, you can choose from 2, 3, 4, 6, or 10 ring cycles. Have you any idea how many times people ask for five rings? Yet the manufacturers absolutely cannot get their heads around the idea that this is a problem. That’s the way it works, they say, and users need to get over it.

That’s just one example—the industry is rife with them.

Another example from the same system is that the name you program on your set can only be seven characters in length. Back in the late 1980s, when this particular system was built, RAM was pretty dear, and storing those seven characters for dozens of sets represented a huge hardware expense. So what’s the excuse today? None. Are there any plans to change it? Hardly—the issue is not even officially acknowledged as a problem.

Now, it’s all very well and good to pick on one system, but the reality is that every PBX in existence suffers shortcomings. No matter how fully featured it is, something will always be left out, because even the most feature-rich PBX will always fail to anticipate the creativity of the customer. A small group of users will desire an odd little feature that the design team either did not think of or could not justify the cost of building, and, since the system is closed, the users will not be able to build it themselves.

If the Internet had been thusly hampered by regulation and commercial interests, it is doubtful that it would have developed the wide acceptance it currently enjoys. The openness of the Internet meant that anyone could afford to get involved. So, everyone did. The tens of thousands of minds that collaborated on the creation of the Internet delivered something that no corporation ever could have.

As with many other open source projects, such as Linux and the Internet, the explosion of Asterisk was fueled by the dreams of folks who knew that there had to be something more than what the industry was producing. The strength of the community is that it is composed not of employees assigned to specific tasks, but rather of folks from all sorts of industries, with all sorts of experiences, and all sorts of ideas about what flexibility means, and what openness means. These people knew that if one could take the best parts of various PBXs and separate them into interconnecting components—akin to a boxful of LEGO bricks—one could begin to conceive of things that would not survive a traditional corporate risk-analysis process. While no one can seriously claim to have a complete picture of what this thing should look like, there is no shortage of opinions and ideas.

Many people new to Asterisk see it as unfinished. Perhaps these people can be likened to visitors to an art studio, looking to obtain a signed, numbered print. They often leave disappointed, because they discover that Asterisk is the blank canvas, the tubes of paint, the unused brushes waiting.

Even at this early stage in its success, Asterisk is nurtured by a greater number of artists than any other PBX. Most manufacturers dedicate no more than a few developers to any one product; Asterisk has scores. Most proprietary PBXs have a worldwide support team comprised of a few dozen real experts; Asterisk has hundreds.

The depth and breadth of expertise that surrounds this product is unmatched in the telecom industry. Asterisk enjoys the loving attention of old Telco guys who remember when rotary dial mattered, enterprise telecom people who recall when voicemail was the hottest new technology, and data communications geeks and coders who helped build the Internet. These people all share a common belief: that the telecommunications industry needs a proper revolution.[3]

Asterisk is the catalyst.



[3] The telecom industry has been predicting a revolution since before the crash; time will tell how well they respond to the open source revolution.

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