This shouldn't be surprising, given the increasingly intertwined fates of proprietary and open-source software. But it's interesting to watch Bandwidth.com--a 10-year-old company that sells business voice and data services--incorporate open source into its strategy. After all, the company recently built its own, nationwide CLEC IP voice network. It has a lot riding on that proprietary network, including 4 billion minutes of voice traffic in 2009.
So why bother with FreePBX, an open-source graphical user interface for managing Asterisk, the leading open-source telephony engine? That's the question I took to Barr. His answers are instructive for anyone hoping to leverage open source into their business.
FreePBX is mostly invisible: not many people know about it but it just happens to be the basis for the interface that you see if you're using AsteriskNOW or Trixbox CE, and many other open-source PBX distributions. In total, FreePBX is running on over 300,000 phone systems (with 3 million downloads, to date)...with virtually no one knowing they're even using it.
This is an impressive level of adoption for an independent open-source project. Now Bandwidth.com, and the FreePBX community, are investing in the next generation of FreePBX.
Why? Why is Bandwidth.com spending so much money developing software that it has no interest in selling?
Bandwidth.com's interest is in selling network services, not software. But that software provides the basis for a larger community's interest in Bandwidth.com's network services. The FreePBX community, in turn, benefits from having access to Bandwidth.com's network features, but for the most part, it focuses on technology innovation that benefits other communities such as Asterisk and FreeSWITCH.
Or, to make an analogy to Linux, FreePBX is like Gnome or KDE, and the open-source telephony engines (Asterisk and FreeSWITCH) are like the kernel. While the kernel makes the operating system function, the user experience and key tools for the application development environment is really driven by the user interface, as with FreePBX.
With the preview release of FreePBX version 3 on Tuesday, FreePBX now supports FreeSWITCH (and soon Asterisk, as well), making it completely engine agnostic. Not only does this expand the footprint of open source in telephony, it also gives customers choices, so they can pick the right engine for their use case.
It also turns open-source telephony inside out, setting up FreePBX as the focal point for future innovation in open-source telephony. I suspect that FreePBX's new modular architecture and standards-based frameworks may inspire application developers to target new telephony applications to FreePBX to be able to run with any "engine".
All of which should help Bandwidth.com. Barr told me that the key to innovation is better linkage to network functionality. Because of its network, Bandwidth.com is in a position to drive innovation through FreePBX, faster. The more FreePBX adoption, the strategy goes, the more consumption of Bandwidth.com services.
Bandwidth.com launched a Developer Sandbox Program on Tuesday that aims to give developers enhanced access to its VoIP network features. The idea is that developers can now make use of open-source software and open access to network functionality and develop a new generation of applications that function seamlessly with the voice network.
As an example, Bandwidth.com already has a contextual "store" in beta that allows FreePBX users to turn-on dial-tone and get phone numbers right from the interface.
As Barr puts it, FreePBX, backed by Bandwidth.com, is about lowering the overall cost of telephony for customers and having better open-source technology that encourages new network-aware application development.
It's a classic razor/blade model, as Bandwidth.com heavily invests in open-source complements for its network services core. The model seems to be working for Bandwidth.com. Can 4 billion voice minutes be wrong?
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