Calling Card: Digium Delivers Own Built-And-Branded IP Phones

Digium Wednesday confirmed the release of a new family of high-definition IP phones, marking the open-source VoIP and PBX specialist’s first foray into selling its own branded endpoints.

The hook? Digium's phones are engineered to fully integrate with Asterisk, the open-source telephony project for which Digium is the primary caretaker, and therefore present a wide range of possibilities for networking-focused developers. The phones also will be tightly integrated with Switchvox, Digium's highly regarded Asterisk-based VoIP system for SMB and midmarket customers.

"One thing partners have mentioned is extending Asterisk all the way to the endpoint, so we're taking Digium to that complete system integration," said Angie Reed, Digium product marketing manager. "These are completely developed by Digium. We're not just putting our software on another vendor's phone -- these are Digium-built phones."

The launch includes the entry-level D40, an HD IP phone with two-line keys, for $129; the midlevel D50, an HD IP phone with four-line keys and 10 rapid dial/busy lamp field keys with easy-print paper label strips for a user's top contacts, for $179; and the higher-end D70, an HD IP phone with six-line keys, 10 rapid dial/busy lamp field keys and realtime status information displayed on an adjoining LCD screen, for $279. All are expected to be available in April.

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Digium has relationships with several IP phone makers, particularly Polycom. Reed said that Digium isn't ending its partnership with Polycom -- the two companies in January confirmed their strategic partnership would continue -- but pointed out that Digium's IP phones represent a less costly option for customers as well as one that more easily integrates with Switchvox and other Asterisk-based PBX systems.

"You're eliminating the need to put a full-featured pack on top of those phones," Reed said. "Polycom manufactures their phones to run on multiple different solutions. It may not be optimized for one solution. Customers think it's nicer to have it more tightly integrated."

Digium designed all of the software for the phones as well as all of the physical features, including buttons and keys. Multicast DNS and auto-discovery of Switchvox or other Asterisk servers are among the software’s highlights.

Asterisk-savvy developers will be able to build custom applications using Digium's APIs if they choose.

"If you were to take raw Asterisk and add phones on, you'd have to provision them but you'd be writing configuration files for each," said Steve Sokol, Asterisk marketing director at Digium. "Most people like using Asterisk with some kind of administrative front end on top of it. Our preferred version of that is, of course, Switchvox, but there are many others."

Some of the Asterisk features in the Digium phone software had to be developed from scratch, and Sokol said integration would be fully smoothed out in later versions of Asterisk.

"There are a few features that aren't in any versions of Asterisk that we needed to make the phones fly," he said. "Ultimately, we will roll it all into the mainline Asterisk code."

Several of Digium's key channel partners already have access to the products, said Reed.

Corey McFadden, managing partner at Infradapt, an Easton, Pa.-based solution provider, said the Digium phones would be well received by customers and the Asterisk channel.

"From a market perspective, there's a gap between what people want in phone features and what we can give them in phone features," McFadden said. "Polycom has pretty much been our standard phone for the last two years, but this is the best of both worlds between a SIP-based phone and something that is a nice hook into Asterisk. Relative to any other phone, it's an easy sell."

McFadden said Digium had done a good job monetizing some of its strengths, such as support subscriptions, the Switchvox system and Switchvox maintenance, and staying true to Asterisk's roots as a noncommercial open-source project. IP phones were a natural expansion, although he urged Digium to keep the rollout deliberate as it adjusts to marketing a new product.

"Obviously, this is a different scale of production than Digium has been accustomed to in the past," he said. "But I think they're going to have more demand for these phones than they can keep up with. They're pretty solid and I feel confident putting them in front of a customer."

Many of Polycom's IP phones are priced similarly to the Digium models but McFadden said the difference would be in the Asterisk integration and the development potential. Some customers, he said, want very specific, even esoteric features -- such as a "hot desking" capability for switching between workers on different shifts in an operations center -- and the integration with the phones themselves means that won't be nearly as difficult or time-consuming.

"If you are a very capable VAR with a really good team of developers that can put together a collection of Web services, you can get very close to a proprietary platform in terms of look and feel and features and such," McFadden said. "The barrier of doing things like that hot desking example is a lot higher than it should be, and there's such a variance in terms of features and customer satisfaction with a lot of these Asterisk deployments."

NEXT: Digium's Channel Chops Make For Big Returns

Digium's channel strengths have carried the company to record returns in the past year, particularly around Switchvox, whose revenue grew 42 percent year-over-year from 2010 to 2011, Reed said. Digium now has about 1,700 partners worldwide and is garnering more notice from industry analysts, including Gartner, which in 2011 named Digium to its influential Magic Quadrant for Unified Communications for the first time.

Danny Windham, Digium's CEO, said 2012 will be the year that Digium reaps a lot of rewards from the channel, technology and partnership moves it's made in the past two years. Digium's business communications solutions (BCS) segment, for example, is its fastest-growing, up 35 percent from 2010 to 2011.

"We're growing in two key business areas: those end users who want to build their solutions based on Asterisk -- and we can sell them training, software add-ons -- and then people who want to buy things built from Asterisk, including Switchvox, our flagship," Windham said in a recent interview with CRN at Digium's Huntsville, Ala., headquarters. "Look at 2011 as an investment year on Digium's part. You're going to see the beginning of a lot of the stuff we've been working on coming on this year."

Digium will continue to update Switchvox and expand its product focus toward mobile devices. On the Asterisk front, it also will focus heavily on the Asterisk Scalable Communications Framework (SCF), a new open-source project Digium kicked off in fall 2010. SCF's goal is to enable realtime UC applications for enterprises and carriers in a way that's scalable, redundant and fault-tolerant, as Digium has described.

On the channel front, it's winning more converts. Some of that has come from being aggressive in going after solution providers and customers frustrated by turmoil in the combined Avaya-Nortel channels and the fallout from Hewlett-Packard's decision to put the voice PBX products it acquired with 3Com into "maintenance mode" a year ago.

"We are getting into bigger-sized deals," said Mark Amick, director of product management at Digium. "We are seeing a push to step up our capacity a bit and seeing more of the scaling opportunity."

Despite the industrywide embrace of cloud computing, Digium won't go too hastily into hosted PBX and hosted UC solutions, Windham said.

"We don't have a product strategy we're ready to announce," he said. "We don't want to be just chasing market trends, and there's still a question about how marketable is hosted UC. We don't want to rush out products without having some primary data on who is buying hosted UC. There is discussion about it from the partners, but I don't hear a deafening roar from them about what is Digium's hosted UC strategy."