Open Source Telephony Makes Money, Vendors Say

Open source doesn’t mean free, according to business leaders in the open source telephony industry who gathered for special panel discussions here Monday at the Fall VON show.
BOSTON -- Open source doesn’t mean free, according to business leaders in the open source telephony industry who gathered for special panel discussions here Monday at the Fall VON show.

The show’s “Open Source IP Communications Summit” included panelists from both large and small companies working with open source telephony software, including Digium/Asterisk, Fonality, iSolve, Pingtel, Sun Microsystems, SIP Foundry, Verizon, and VoicePulse. A number of companies are demonstrating open source products or making open source announcements at the show, including IBM, Mindspeed, PMC-Sierra, and Signate.

The open source dicsussion track presented a vibrant community of commercial businesses built on open source software. While the objectives of business and open source may seem oxymoronic to some, the key, according to Fonality CEO Chris Lyman, is not to confuse “open source” with “free software.”

There is a “difference between the open source movement and the free software movement,” Lyman said. From his perspective, open source is a business tool that entrepreneurs can use to build interesting companies. “Open source is about business, not about freedom,” Lyman said.

By contrast, the free software movement believes that there is something fundamentally wrong with commercial software. According to Lyman, free software proponets sometimes take the extreme position that “anyone purchasing one of these [commercial] licenses and distributing non-free software is doing something wrong.”

While agreeing with the value of opening up software source code for non-commercial uses, open source entrepreneurs such as Lyman part ways with the extreme idealism of free software. He points out that his Culver City, Calif.-based company has written more lines of code for their commercial extension to the open source Asterisk software than exist in the original Asterisk code base. Asterisk is an open source hybrid VoIP-TDMA software switch supporting all conventional phone traffic protocols, and acts as a “black box” to merge all types of voice and data traffic in a heterogenous network.

Fonality is just one example of a commercial company built on top of Asterisk. By adding management, monitoring and provisioning to the Asterisk PBX, Fonality has created a product that it says a small company with no technical staff can successfully install and use. “Easy to use software ain’t easy to make,” said Lyman, pointing out that open source Asterisk alone might be fine for a technical user but that most people wanted a much easier-to-use product.

In defending his commercial view of open source, Lyman points out a historical example in Netscape’s use of open source. The original impetus for Netscape’s Bob Lisbonne to create, he said, was the realization that Microsoft had far more developers working on Internet Explorer than Netscape could ever hope to have. Therefore, open source became a logical business tool to compete.

Speakers repeated the theme throughout the day, that open source allows a marketplace to evolve with a common baseline of functionality and interoperability; individual companies can then differentiate their products based on innovation. Proof points for the theory came from the fact that companies from tiny Fonality to giant IBM were showing Asterisk-based products on the VON show floor.

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