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Some Asterisk Resolutions for the New Year

We made some New Year’s Resolutions for 2008… just as we do every year. There are the usual ones: lose weight, exercise, more quality time with the family. But you make all of those, too. This year, there are some changes in the Asterisk® landscape we’d like to see: more community participation, better training opportunities, an end to deprecating commands, and a push into major corporate and government organizations.

The Asterisk Business Model. As we count down the days to the Nerd Vittles third year birthday bash, we’ve got to say that we’ve learned a lot these past few years. The amazing part of Asterisk is really that it has survived at all. Until recently, Digium® derived almost all of its revenue off hardware sales. Fonality makes its money off hosted Asterisk solutions. Hardware vendors seem to be doing just fine as are small systems integrators. But the folks that provide the software products that make Asterisk fly are basically starving to death. The open source model has been used as a convenient way for a handful of companies to essentially profit off someone else’s work, and I’m not talking about Digium that has done much more than its fair share to contribute open source software in exchange for hardware dollars that it has earned. And this isn’t a plea for money. I retired from a cushy government job with a cushy retirement plan so starvation isn’t all that likely in my case. But, to give you an example, our recent fund-raising campaign to raise money for a dedicated server to host our forums raised a whopping $80. To those that contributed, thank you! But we have a weekly readership of roughly 50,000 people, most of whom presumably depend upon Asterisk systems every day. We’re as cheap as the next guy, but come on folks. Would $10 really change your life style that much? And we’ve heard much the same story from the FreePBX developers. So… Resolution #1 for each of you should go something like this. Find a way that you can give something back to the Asterisk community in 2008. It doesn’t have to be money! Develop an application, develop some documentation, come up with some new ideas and share them with the rest of us. But do something for somebody else without expecting something (else) for free.

The Open Source Alternative. Absent some radical shift in contributions and participation which most of us don’t expect to see, our prediction for 2008 is that the days of the open source gravy train are numbered, at least for turnkey telephony systems. Keep in mind that these are systems that most organizations used to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase and maintain. The alternative that appears to be gaining steam is to gobble up all the free software you can find and then embellish it with proprietary bells and whistles that are not made available without a charge for either the embellished product or a support contract of some type. This is a real dilemma for developers like the FreePBX and PBX in a Flash teams. As we provide more and more functionality as open source software, the "takers" gobble up the goodies, make another sale, and return almost nothing. What’s wrong with this picture? Everything!

Our Resolution #1 is to push for a review of the licensing model. We have no objection to individuals downloading and using all of our code for free forever! However, for those that profit off reselling someone else’s work product, there needs to be some type of contribution into the open source projects that comprise the bundle which is being sold by non-contributors for a handsome profit. And, no, we’re not talking about system integrators who merely charge for their time. For the most part, we’re talking about corporations that sell rebranded, open source solutions for profit. Perhaps a 5-extension license could be offered at no cost with additional extensions being sold for some fee. Another approach might be to license endpoint and/or trunk connections with vendors paying some connection fee to help defray software development costs. Nortel and others used this model for decades. These approaches, of course, also raise questions about how to divide the income between all of the open source contributors. Not sure we know the answers yet, but we’d be interested in getting your feedback and suggestions. It’s in everyone’s best interests to keep the entire Asterisk development community moving forward… and eating.

Vertical Market Penetration. Still another solution, which we happen to favor, is to license add-in code for turnkey Asterisk systems which meets the needs of specific vertical markets. For example, the hotel/motel industry could benefit immeasurably from a move to VoIP telephony. The Marriott’s, Hyatt’s, and Hilton’s of the world already have learned this. But that leaves tens of thousands of smaller hotels and motels that still are using primitive telephony systems. All it would take to make a system like PBX in a Flash a player in this market would be wakeup calls (which Nerd Vittles will provide with Telephone Reminders for Asterisk 1.4 shortly) and a method of recording from room telephones when rooms are vacant, being cleaned, ready for occupancy, or occupied. Asterisk voicemail options already run circles around the features available in most hotels. All that is missing is a way to clear voicemails when someone checks out of the hotel. And A2Billing provides hotels with an instant profit center for outbound calls worldwide. Our purpose today wasn’t to design and build a vertical market solution, but you get the idea. This wouldn’t be rocket science.

Another market which is ripe for Asterisk penetration is the medical community. Ever wondered why a full-time employee in every doctor’s and dentist’s office has to call and remind every patient of their next appointment. TeleYapper and a carefully tailored IVR would provide physicians with a far better telephony solution at considerably less cost. Tying the system into an appointments database would be icing on the cake and easy to implement since MySQL already is running on systems such as PBX in a Flash. Then there are retail stores, restaurants, department stores, WalMart’s, marinas, time shares, rental apartments, call centers, and on, and on. None of these organizations have complex telephony needs that couldn’t be met by a system like PBX in a Flash out of the box. And, with modest customization, any data processing needs could probably be met using the same system. Last but not least is the government: federal, state, and local. Do you have any idea how many separate, crappy phone systems already are in place in government offices? Many of them were installed at a cost of several thousand dollars per user. Counted up the number of government employees lately? So here’s an approach. Find a typical government organization and build them a phone system for free, except for hardware. Then get the mayor or the governor to sing its praises at the dozens of meetings these people attend every year. The sad part of this story is that we have the technical talent in the Asterisk community to produce an extremely compelling product. What’s missing is management vision coupled with a well-trained sales force to get the message across to corporations and government organizations.

Fixing the Asterisk Deal Breaker. Believe it or not, there is a serious shortcoming with Asterisk, and it has nothing to do with the feature set. It lies in the development mentality that there’s something okay about breaking application code by inventing new commands in the Asterisk Extension Language (AEL2) and deprecating (a.k.a. trashing) old ones every year or two. And now Manager 1.1 has been released in the Asterisk SVN trunk. Yikes! We’re scared to look. After the Microsoft fiasco with Visual Basic and VB .NET, one would have hoped we wouldn’t need to have this discussion.

Suppose for a moment that a handful of key commands in the C programming language were changed. The Asterisk developers would be at the front of the line screaming foul when they had to review and rewrite all of their code. Hello!! It’s the same deal when the shoe is on the other foot. This shortcoming simply has to be addressed or vertical market penetration is never going to happen. Organizations buy phone systems expecting them to work reliably for a decade or more. They also invest heavily in building customized application code to support their particular vertical market. DialPlan Functions in AEL2 dealing with timeouts, CallerID, and Asterisk Database Calls all fail if you use the Asterisk 1.2 syntax. These command language changes between Asterisk 1.2 and Asterisk 1.4 broke virtually every application ever produced for Asterisk. Furthermore, the time between versions 1.2 and 1.4 was barely a year. If you want to waste a day, try finding even a list which cross-references old Asterisk 1.2 dialplan commands to their new Asterisk 1.4 counterparts. About the best you can find is a summary of the new commands under section 6.1 here and the mishmash of old and new commands which are summarized at voip-info.org. Neither of these sites has any affiliation with asterisk.org where one would have hoped to find some information. If we’ve missed something, no doubt some fanboy will set us all straight. But, just to be clear, we’re looking for a specific link rather than an RTFM suggestion.

To put it in dollars and cents, organizations simply cannot afford to redesign and rewrite all of their application code every couple of years when someone dreams up new verbs or new ways to use parentheses, brackets, and braces. The fact that Asterisk may be free is pretty much irrelevant once the cost of rewriting all your application code is factored in. So… our plea to the core Asterisk developers is STOP DEPRECATING COMMAND SYNTAX, or you’re going to kill vertical market penetration of the product. It takes at most a few lines of code to support the 1.2 syntax of DigitTimeout(7) as well as the 1.4 syntax of Set(TIMEOUT(digit)=7). There are certainly good reasons for adding new commands to a programming language particularly to support new functionality. But why would you break every application that’s ever been written? Surely it’s not to conserve disk space or RAM in this day and age. You’re writing code for the business community, and that needs to be taken into account if Asterisk is ever going to achieve market penetration in the government and in corporate America… not to mention everywhere else! In case you couldn’t tell, if we have one pet peeve in life, it’s having to debug our own code that functioned perfectly because somebody got a bee in his bonnet to "improve" programming language syntax. <end of rant>

There’s Some Good News, Too! Well, enough of the doom and gloom. We have some terrific news to ring in the New Year as well. As most readers of this column know, FreePBX provides the pretty face for Asterisk as well as all of the smarts to get the most out of your Asterisk PBX without having to learn anything about programming. Well, so you thought! Actually, there’s an incredible number of additional things you can do with Asterisk and FreePBX once you master the FreePBX way of doing things. The problem has been that, up until now, there hasn’t been a way to get individualized training on FreePBX. Well, your prayers have been answered. The FreePBX whiz kids have put together an incredible training session, and Nerd Vittles hometown will be the host site! The FreePBX Open Telephony Training Seminar will be held in Historic Charleston, South Carolina beginning February 27 through February 29, 2008.

This is a DON’T MISS opportunity to learn everything you ever wanted to know about FreePBX, Asterisk, and Linux. The course will cover IVRs, ACDs, IRQs, E911, and the rest of the alphabet as well as routing, trunking, dialplan integration, remote office configuration, echo cancellation, TDM hardware, gateways, IP phones. It’s a very full, three-day course with a half day devoted to branding and selling Asterisk systems. The seminar is being held at one of Charleston’s premier hotels, the Embassy Suites Historic Charleston, with gorgeous suites, swimming pool and exercise room, free WiFi, free breakfasts, and free cocktails every evening. There also will be evening sessions to sit down one-on-one with the FreePBX and PBX in a Flash developers with ample assistance from the quintessential Asterisk development tools: beer and whiskey!

For those unfamiliar with Charleston, just think of it as the best of New Orleans and San Diego all rolled into one terrific Southern city known for its hospitality. By all means, bring your spouse or significant other. Charleston recently won the Reader’s Choice award as the Best Southern City. See the January 2008 issue of Southern Living magazine which is on newstands now. And, if you like New Orleans restaurants, you’ll love Charleston dining! Here’s a big hint: register early if you want to attend. Seating is limited, and the hotel will probably be full except for the rooms already blocked for this seminar. Some of your favorite vendors also will be in attendance, but we’ll save some of those surprises for the coming weeks. If you haven’t yet met Philippe Lindheimer, the lead developer of FreePBX, suffice it to say you are in for quite a treat. We also hope to have the entire PBX in a Flash development team in attendance to address your every need. So, make this New Year’s Resolution: Don’t Procrastinate or you may miss this golden opportunity. Rumor has it that, if you sign up at this link very quickly, you’ll save $600 on the registration fee! And, no, we don’t make a nickel if you attend, but if you tell ’em Uncle Ward sent you, then expect to receive a free drink at Happy Hour just like all of the other Embassy Suites’ guests. Seriously, we’re looking forward to meeting all of you. So come join us and… Happy New Year!

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  1. Good article and well said on all fronts. The vertical markets are there too. I see money saving opportunities every day for many of my clients.

    I doubt I can make it to the first FreePBX training event but I really want to be there. Good luck and have fun!


  2. I think this was very well said. I still haven’t transitioned over to PBXinaflash but I plan to. I just dread doing all the custom stuff all over again. Licensing would really kill me as a home user. I use 5 different lines at home and I also run a private home network that wifi links to all my ham radio repeater sites. I use asterisk at home but have an extension at each site so I can use a phone if I have to. I also use 6 extensions in the house. That is 10 extensions for me alone. I can understand what is going on about other people taking an open source project and making money from it. If they would just contribute a little of that cash back to the source to help out!!!!

  3. I’m one of those system integrators that you speak of.
    Money is tight but one thing I do pay for over and over are books.
    You’ve put together a log of nice plugins for freepbx, I think you should write a book. "A programmers guide to writing Asterisk AGI applications and FreePBX plugins" I’d buy that book!
    If you created a programming library that would help me create my own applications in a hurry, I’d buy that too!
    I agree with all of your points.. especially the one about not breaking existing code. It made no sense to do that. Hopefully they read your site too 🙂

  4. DISCLAIMER: I work for Fonality, but these thoughts are mine and mine alone.

    With all due respect, I take exception to your thinly-veiled attack on Fonality. Besides the obvious contribution back to the community by maintaining (with real American dollars) the trixbox project. Yes, it competes with your own Asterisk-based project, but let’s try to maintain a little perspective here. This contribution back to Asterisk is not trivial in monetary terms or in the way that it competes with our own for-fee version.

    I find it interesting that you slam us in a sideways fashion – even to the extent of totally mis-characterizing our business as "a hosted solution". That is totally untrue and you know it. And yet, you then lament the absence of professionalism in the Asterisk world by saying "What’s missing is management vision coupled with a well-trained sales force to get the message across to corporations and government organizations." Well, duh, that pretty much describes us here at Fonality. We are not "takers" as you so churlishly describe, but vital parts of the entire Asterisk universe, providing real, solid value to our customers every single day, thank you very much.

    At the end of the day, we here at Fonality are at least as much a part of the Asterisk community as anyone else, and we really don’t need this kind of character assasination being promulgated by you. If we’ve done anything wrong – besides developing enhancements to Asterisk and making money by selling turnkey systems to customers – then spell it out. Last time I checked, the GPL still applies to Asterisk and your strange comments about charging license fees to use GPL code do not merit serious discussion.

    If you really want to start a discussion about licensing rights, though, let’s discuss the whole dual-licensing aspect of Asterisk itself. Now *that* is an interesting and valid discussion.

    [WM: You’ve read considerably more into my article than is there. My comments were not directed at any particular individual or organization. Feel free to correct me if I am mistaken, but I think Fonality does charge license fees for certain products that include lots of GPL code including Asterisk. So why exactly would that not merit discussion? And how many lines of code has Fonality contributed back to the Asterisk project? Certainly the spirit of the GPL would suggest that embellished code is supposed to be made publicly available, not just to folks that purchase the embellished products.]

  5. Even if you did start to license add-in code you made you would still give it to me right?

    But seriously when it comes to donating my problem had been and might have been for others that I am installing this for my office and if there was something, anything really, offered along with the donation then I could get my employer involved in the contribution which would be more I would hope then just me giving something. But for me to tell them I need money for the new phone system and then hand them back a receipt for a donation as much as I understand it is more than the right thing for them to do it would not go over well.

    I think the previous idea of a book would be a great idea as well I can always get the money to purchase any documentation I need when starting a project. But if there was a quick reference sheet or something that came with a donation of $10 I could at least get that every time I updated one of our offices. Just a thought…. Please don’t lock up to much stuff though I use this at home to.

  6. This is a good wake-up call… I would love to give back to the community (even though I don’t even make enough money to even attend the FreePBX Open Telephony Training Seminar), and your ideas here are very good ones. I do help at forums and via email, and elsewhere as much as I can, but it still feel as if I should do something else for the developers, however I agree with Adam’s comment that it is hard to justify a Donation receipt, it should be in the way of documentation, or books or something else that I can provide a receipt and proof of purchase of.

    I have bought nearly every asterisk book there is out there, but how much of that money goes in to developers? There should be a way (other than donation) to bring some money to the developers (perhaps a documentation/add-ons/installation CD that one could Buy)… Just something to say to the boss, hey let’s buy X thing to support the developers of our great PBX system!

    Anyway, Ward, let us know how the FreePBX Open Telephony Training Seminar goes, since some of us are too poor to go and our bosses too cheap to send us LOL.

    [WM: Thanks for your note AND your help. The problem with books (aside from being old technology) is that someone has to write them and the publishers get about 90%.]

  7. Re: The Book

    I’m all about the book and WM’s comment about publishers get about 90% is probably true. So what about a PDF that *you* create and that *you* host. Charge say $10. Everybody would be happy then.

    I *love* seeing a new post from Nerd Vittles in my RSS feed because it means that I get to do something new and exciting with my Asterisk boxes. Thanks for all the time and effort you put in to your tutorials!

  8. I could not agree more with your comments regarding donations. I have been using Asterisk in one form or other for the last 2 years and have learned a lot. In fact, I am looking into turning my knowledge into a retirement business (few bucks a month type thing) and would definitely find a way to share the profits. Not sure although how money can be made using your "PBX in a Flash" or "FreePBX" without breaking any laws…I imagine by selling installation, consulting and maintenance services or such. Anyways, I too would love to attend the FreePBX "Open Telephony Seminar" but is to expensive right now. I want to suggest hosting Webminars were we can learn more about the industry, Asterisk, FreePBX, PBX in a Flash etc… can be hosted very inexpensively and therefore become a source of income for NerdVittles, FreePBX, etc. Is not the same thing spending say $50 to $100 on a day’s webminar than spending upwards of $4K by the time you consider hotel + air fare + meals + seminar fees, etc. Anyways, thank you so much for an excellent job!

  9. If you don’t like Asterisk’s development process stop using it. As soon as freepbx supports callweaver(formerly openpbx) I will be wanting to change. It removes the dual licensing that asterisk has. It is also included and packaged for many distrubutions.

    [WM: There are ways to address shortcomings without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We happen to like Asterisk and all the folks that have and are developing it. That’s not to say that there aren’t issues that perhaps haven’t been addressed previously because of the project’s prior focus. We’ll leave CallWeaver for discussion another day.]

  10. The FreePBX team loves Asterisk as well despite the occasional hoop we have to jump through. Concerning: "As soon as freepbx supports callweaver(formerly openpbx) I will be wanting to change." FreePBX is designed to support other ‘engines’ and it would probably not be to hard to get this working. However, the callweaver team needs to take the initiative to make this happen (and of course we would be there to help them). They would probably see their exposure and adoption skyrocket if they made this effort.

  11. "However, for those that profit off reselling someone else’s work product, there needs to be some type of contribution into the open source projects that comprise the bundle which is being sold by non-contributors for a handsome profit."

    So you dont mind making open source software but you want the companies that use it to pay you for it. That’s pretty hypocritical isn’t it? Just because someone figures out how to make money and is not wrong of bad. It’s simply jealousy on your part that you can’t figure out how.

    [WM: You missed the point in the sentence you’ve quoted. Our concern was companies reselling open source products of others without contributing back in some way. We are not at all concerned with companies using our products. All of our products always will be free for use by end-users whether they are individuals or companies.]

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