Mitel Bets Big On Software With Freedom Architecture

Believing that unified communications battles will be increasingly won and lost in the software arena -- and away from vertically integrated vendor offerings -- Mitel this week took the wraps off of Freedom, a new UC architecture that delivers UC applications via a cloud-based software stream.

According to Mitel, embracing Freedom means saving as much as 45 percent in corporate mobility costs and 85 percent in communications servers needed for UC deployment.

The idea of UC as a software play and part of a virtualized infrastructure has taken hold with a number of the space's top vendors. Avaya's Aura, for example, is a virtualized UC platform with a SIP underpinning, and supporting software-based collaboration interfaces like its Flare Experience on its own endpoint devices and those of others. Microsoft on Wednesday will go live with Lync, the updated version of what was formerly known as Office Communications Server, and the latest iteration of Microsoft's three-year-old vision that software UC would eventually eclipse the IP PBX for enterprises.

Mitel, too, is taking the software and services approach. Through Freedom, businesses are able to integrate their UC capabilities with a wide range of endpoint devices and applications, according to Mitel.

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"We're focused on the best of breed model," said Jim Davies, Mitel's chief technology officer, in an interview with CRN. "We see choosing one of two roads. One road would be the everything-for-one where you provide the whole solution, and the other is best-of-breed. We think that one gives [partners] a great deal more flexibility."

Along with Mitel Freedom is a cloud-based UC service called Mitel AnyWhere, which bundles everything from IP handsets to long distance service under a monthly subscription fee of $35 a seat. It's currently available in the United States, and also through select service providers delivering Mitel AnyWhere as a hosted service internationally.

"It sounds funny coming from a CTO, but VoIP in the software domain is really about the business model and not the technology," Davies said. "That's very germane to the channel discussion, and channel partners have some interesting choices to make. We have an increasing chunk of our channel coming from different places, from VoIP VARs to a whole series of folks that have a data background or who do VM hosting plays."

NEXT: Desktop Virtualization, Mobile Apps

Also new this week is desktop virtualization with VMware, part of an expanded relationship between Mitel and the virtualization dynamo. Mitel's UC applications combine with VMware View to drive communications needs in virtualized desktop environments.

Finally, Mitel is offering Unified Communicator Advanced Mobile for Android, a client for Android devices that adds features like location-based presence via GPS and Bluetooth on top of the UC capabilities available through Mitel's existing mobile applications. It'll be available in the first half of 2011, and Mitel is promising similar integration with Apple's iPad and BlackBerry's PlayBook.

"We're strongly of the opinion that the end user experience is going to be increasingly driven by mobile devices," Davies said. "As much as car stereos are going away, desk phones are going away. Car stereos will still be there, but are people more strongly bonded to their car stereos or their iPods? That's the reality, and the reality for us is in mobile devices. End users will elect their device, and IT is going to have to provide security controls and comfort. Absolutely the writing's on the wall."

Davies said the greater value placed on software in the UC space should be a catalyst for VARs updating their practices -- or leaving the business.

"Microsoft coming into the market has opened some eyes, but I think the general consensus is that we do have to change with some of this stuff," Davies said. "I do think we will see a number of VARs exit the business, and what we're seeing from the channel perspective is, better have a plan."

The right move for Mitel, he continued, is leaving behind the "walled garden" approach of rival UC vendors, and integrate with other platforms. For VARs, said Davies, that creates a competitive advantage and fulfills the job of trusted adviser to customers.

"Ultimately, you become a consultant service company," he said. "When we're talking to channel partners I hear interest in both models. But everything best of breed is a good alternative, and we put the Freedom piece around that."

"Everything going on in the industry around cloud computing, software as a service, hardware as a service, all of it's changing how you have to go to market, so the fact that we can realign our business and a have a manufacturer doing something similar is good," said Robert Handel, vice president of sales at Cortel Business Solutions, a New York-based solution provider and Mitel partner. "Cap-ex sales are almost a thing of the past, and companies are looking at what it costs them monthly per employee."

Handel said he sees Mitel's move as a stake in the ground for software- and hosted-based UC sales.

"It's exciting to see what they're doing to get away from the big box mentality. I think they're ahead of the curve because their major competitors are still pushing boxes," he said. "We like the application and solutions sell, and that justifies the expense to people. I think in the beginning people thought hosted IP would be only for under 25 (employees), but the appetite is growing into larger applications, and additional feature sets are getting offered."

It's been a busy year for Mitel, which in April had an initial public offering, and in early September confirmed that CEO Don Smith will retire from the company following nine years on the job. At the time, Mitel said Smith would plan to stay on until his successor is named and also continue as a board member.

Davies said Mitel had no update to offer on the CEO search.