I remember fondly to the days of 1999 Cisco Networkers Conference in Australia when we first gazed in awe at the Cisco’s most recent acquisition – The Selsius Systems IP Phone system. There we were, all gathered around and gazing on iPhone-like awe at the might, yea the power, yea the very magic of the Internet Protocol and golden future of that IP Telephones was going to bring to data networking. Everyone waited patiently to have a turn and actually ‘hear’ a telephone call. You just had to ‘hear’ it to believe.
It was an awesome new future. And profound in how it instantly created believers and haters and almost no one in the middle.
IP Telephony Today
In the last ten years, the idea of the IP PBX has become entrenched. The actual numbers of deployments is still relatively low because the old PBX’s still work fine and are hard to replace. IP Telephony remains tricky to deploy, requires a high level of expertise to run and is still expensive (although old Telephony is still expensive as well). Except in the SME market, where it’s the default solution. IP Telephony is hard to scale.
Which is all good. We all can see IP Telephony slowly moving into the future and gradually growing in strength but not much more.
So why is IP Telephony over ? I’ve just pointed out that it’s growing slowly, and it’s a complicated product. That’s going to be a good for a career, isn’t it ?
Lets remember what the purpose of a PBX is – it’s a way of saving money. The primary purpose of a PBX is to avoid paying a service provider for telephone calls between desks in your buildings (a cost-based failure in early Cloud Computing, if you will). Installing your own “telephone exchange” was cheaper than paying for hundreds of line from the telephone company.
It’s secondary purpose is to improve productivity by increasing communication between staff members – which also saves money on staff costs. This productivity gain was enhanced by the addition of new features such as call waiting, call transfer and voice mail.
There are two things counting against IP Telephony. The least element is the rise of tools like Skype or Internet Telephony. Many people are switching to tools like Google Voice or Skype, especially in small business, and opting for no PBX at all. Once this practice becomes normalised (if it isn’t already), the PBX industry will see much lower growth, if not a complete decline in total sales.
((Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mwichary/2150582393/))
Mobile Telephony or Enterprise Telephony
The second most significant element that will change the future of Corporate IP Telephony is impact of Mobile Phones and the recent introduction of fixed price, unlimited tariffs in many countries around the world. Until recently, mobile phones were expensive and generally, employees were discouraged from making too many calls and to use the desk phone where possible. But the productivity gains from from actually getting someone to answer the phone instead of leaving a voice mail mean that many people just call your mobile phone every time instead of using the desk phone. And they call from their mobile phone as well.
For people who are highly mobile, say between sites or work at multiple offices, a desk phone has no meaning at all. Personally, I haven’t had a desk phone for the seven years excluding my most recent job and am always surprised when it rings.
The key change event is the introduction in many countries of fixed price tariffs for mobile phones that include a lot of minutes (or, at least, more than you can reasonably use in a month). In the UK, a fixed price of about UK£50 per month gets you a phone, 1200 minutes and 500 texts and voice mail. Now, 1200 minutes is about forty minutes a day of voice calls, which is more than most (not all, just most) people will use.
This price is not a whole lot more than a desk phone (including PBX / Voice Mail, cabling / capex, maintenance) so why not just have a mobile phone instead ?
I understand that the Americans don’t currently have unlimited pricing plans because of the monopoly of the Service Providers. I’d expect this to change in next year or two and T-Mobile have already introduced an unlimited plan (with certain conditions and haven’t advertised it widely).
Now there are certain jobs where a landline is still going to be useful. But if a conservative thirty percent of staff in a company can change to using mobile phones, then the IP Telephony market is basically over. And once that change takes place, those users aren’t coming back. Once a market goes into decline, it’s not a fun place to be (for example, working in mainframes isn’t exactly a hot business. It’s a good career but would you choose to train and advance your career in IBM zOS if you have a choice ….no, didn’t think so).
And thats why I’m not studying Cisco Voice.
And so to the rise of Jabber….and presence
The direction of the PBX is clear however, as a presence server. That is, a system that can track whether you are online and ‘present’ to receive a communication. That communication might be a teleconference, or voice call and it will hold your messages such as email, chat, text or even voicemail until you are ready to receive them.
Of course, Microsoft is already doing this with Office Communicator when it’s installed in combination with Exchange Server. You can choose to chat, message, IP Voice call or teleconference to someone else with Office Communicator. Exchange provides the status updates as to whether they are available, and and address book, and so on.
And again, if you are choosing to train in IP Voice, I think it would be investing time into a skill set that would rapidly be obsolete. The next generation of presence technologies is already here. Cisco bought Jabber in late 2008 to provide this capability ((although I not sure whether this software has been into Unified Communications Server)).
Cisco is also adding Presence functions to it’s products including Jabber Messaging, Videoconferencing and Email Servers (hosted IronPort services is just the start of this changeover) but will these services be extended to the mobile phone ? I can’t make that call, the future is too uncertain. Telco’s still believe that they own their networks and they don’t want Cisco or Microsoft stealing their voice revenue and dumbing down their pipes. Since Cisco and Microsoft rely on Telco / Service Providers for significant chunk of futures and revenue (especially Cisco), they aren’t going to attack this market anytime soon.
In the long term, these presence functions will probably be integrated with Smartphones using some sort of application. The idea of just making voice calls using some sort of desktop appliance that is fixed to one place will seem quaint and old fashioned.
Skills can transferred and updated
I’m sure that any skills you learn in Voice will be valuable in the new game. QoS and Microsoft skills are key parts of the Cisco Telephony platform in any case, Networking skills are almost incidental. But how much time do you really want to spend developing new knowledge ? It’s an enormous job keeping up with that much change. Not impossible, just very difficult. If you take a break, then you can easily lose your edge.
Good luck to you if you make that choice, it’s yours to make. I can’t see that there is a strong future in Enterprise IP Voice and I would surely think twice before heading down that study path.