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The Big Brained Mammal Called Fonality

In the world of fast moving Asterisk-based companies, there is perhaps none more quick than Chris Lyman’s Fonality.  This morning, they plant a stake in the ground with the announcement of PBXtra Professional, and the simple assertion that their Asterisk-based solution is ready to take on the enterprise.   Lyman’s bold position that Fonality’s solution has reached near feature parity with products from Cisco, Nortel, and Avaya at prices 40% to 80% lower than his competitors, is bound to turn heads.

PBXtra Professional is designed to take Fonality from the low end of the market they sell into today — 10 to 100 seats — to the sweet spot mid-market of 50 to 500 seats.  By adding enterprise features to the already substantial capabilities of the current PBXtra product, Fonality is targeting serious departmental and telecommuter usage scenarios.  These new features include employee groups, permissions, zoned paging and intercom, NPA / NPX call routing and an unlimited participant conference bridge. 

So, how inexpensive is it?  PBXtra Professional is $1995 US for unlimited users, plus phones and an annual support contract.   Chatting with Chris last week, I asked him to quote me a 100 seat system.  He whipped out his calculator, did a few calculations and quoted just under $20,000 for 100 seats equipped with Aastra phones.  In other words, not much more than the cost of the handsets themselves.

HUD Team is the other big piece of Fonality’s announcements this morning.  A year in the making, HUD Team is the centerpiece of Fonality’s Unified Communications strategy.  The original HUD was a tool designed to display extensions and voice mail only.  HUD Team adds instant messaging based on IRC, presence, email integration with Outlook, and drag and drop call management capabilities.

With HUD Team you can initiate chat sessions, see who is online, who is on the phone, monitor calls, initiate calls from within Outlook, etc etc etc.  It’s an impressive progression beyond screen pops and operator console style extension management, and in my conversations with Chris Lyman he made it clear that this is just the beginning.  “Fonality’s goal”, said Lyman, “is to move the application layer off the handset”, and onto the PC where he feels it more properly belongs.  His vision for the desktop handset is that it becomes a device that “just passes audio”, and that the user interface for call management will move to the PC.  At $995 for unlimited seats HUD Team looks like a no-brainer when compared to Microsoft LCS, for instance, at $787/server plus $31/user, or systems like NewHeights Desktop Assistant, which are tied to a proprietary PBX solution. 

One of the hallmarks of Fonality’s approach is their patent-pending hybrid managed services architecture.  Essentially, Fonality ships a server to the customer, and while the customer does have root on their box, they manage it, as if it were a locked-down server, from a web-browser connected securely to the Fonality data center.

Something like a VPN based solution, this architecture allows telecommuters access to the corporate phone network as if they were inside the firewall.  Fonality’s architecture bypasses the typically difficult security NAT traversal issues which occur when customers have phones outside the corporate firewall trying to register to a PBX which resides inside the firewall. Often these telecommuter phones are also on a dynamic IP address (imagine an “at home” scenario with a cable modem) so they actually have to first traverse their own NAT before hitting the corporate NAT. This compounded problem makes the relationship dynamic, and unstable, on both ends.

Fonality’s patented architecture essentially runs a registration service for these phones to “phone home” when they are first turned on. Registrations are made through the Fonality data center, and then to the customers PBX.  By doing so, Fonality claims it allows customers, without in-house IT staff, to run a distributed phone deployment or even call center. Moreover, this architecture allows Fonality to roll out new features and enhance reliability for the customer by remotely managing services as a traditional hosted service provider would, while providing the additional reliability and feature richness of a premises based solution.  And practically speaking, this approach allows Fonality to drop ship complete systems to customers, for self install, without truck rolls.  It saves a ton of money for them, and for the customer.

Smart and aggressive, Lyman brashly asserts that the incumbents “pay their channel a larger commision than we sell our entire solution for.” His strategy to use open source and to go to market direct, as DELL did, or through the data VAR channel, rather than the existing PBX channel, is smart.  Well executed, it’s bound to tear gaping holes in the PBX market.  

One of the themes I heard repeated at Astricon two weeks ago was that Asterisk is moving into the mainstream.  Many are looking to Digium to provide marketing leadership as this happens, while expressing admiration for the leadership Fonality is showing today. Third party vendors, iotum included, will naturally find it more difficult to work with Fonality’s tightly managed architecture, than the more open and traditional open source approach taken by Digium.   When I contacted Digium for a comment on this announcement, however, they demurred, so we’ll have to wait to see their strategy. 

For now, Fonality with their PBXtra Professional and HUD Team offerings, is emerging a fleet big brained mammal as yesterday’s PBX business dinosaurs are seemingly doomed to extinction.

More from Tom Keating.

Sidebar:  the ever prescient Andy Abramson predicted something like this last week. 

{ 1 comment… add one }

  • Andrew November 6, 2006, 7:05 am

    Fonality is nothing short of impressive. Their channel program is top notch and responsive. If anyone can walk the tightrope of displacing the incumbents in the PBX channel, it is these guys. They have come up with the best solution thus far.

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