Unplug and play: Uniting mobile devices, PBXs

As a mobile device user, do you have desktop phone envy? Sure, going mobile spells freedom, but it also often means giving up traditional PBX-based phone system features such as abbreviated dialing, call transferring and multiparty teleconferencing.

Ford, for example, is ditching 8,000 landline, desktop phones in favor of wireless devices, but has no plan yet to integrate those devices with the company’s PBX or new IP PBX.

PBX makers are working to address such situations by extending their products to embrace wireless devices, but don’t look for much in the way of new offerings until later this year. Meanwhile, a group of lesser-known companies is bridging the gap between mobile users and back-end phone systems with new products and services.

“Today,users need specialized applications that work through their PBX, and some are expensive,” says Philip Redman, a research vice president at Gartner.

Early players in the mobile-PBX integration market include Ascendent Systems and Orative, whose offerings work across different vendors’ PBXs and mobile devices.

There is US$50 billion to $100 billion in installed PBXs in the world, says Ascendent Vice President of Marketing Walt Blomquist.

Ascendent’s PowerConnect server-based software sits behind the firewall and in front of the PBX, delivering traditional PBX features such as four-digit dialing, transferring calls, putting calls on hold and direct access to corporate voice mail to users’ wireless devices. No client software is required.

PowerConnect also acts as a back-up system. If a company loses its phone lines because of a fiber cut, for example, the Ascendent system can forward calls to users’ wireless phones or landline phones outside of the office. To exploit this, companies need to work with their local service provider to set up a separate fiber line to reroute calls to an Ascendent server.

This back-up feature sold Claymore Securities on Ascendent. The Lisle, Ill., financial services company deployed PowerConnect as part of its business-continuity plan, says Gregory Miller, manager of IT. Claymore’s management team initially balked at making PowerConnect part of the company’s disaster-recovery plan. But Miller says the day after he pitched management on the system, a fiber cut outside the building convinced management to reconsider.

“I got someone from our leadership team to look out the window. I told him we were four inches from losing our telecom service today,” Miller says.

Users can buy PowerConnect based on a three-year or perpetual license. Ascendent charges $5 per month, per user for 1,000 users for a three-year license. A perpetual-term license costs about $250,000 for 1,000 users.

Another offering comes from Orative, a three-year-old company that launched its Enterprise Server in March. Server software communicates with a company’s traditional or IP PBX switches, while client software installs on wireless devices running common mobile operating systems.

Features include a phone book that lets end users select group directories from larger corporate directories and download them onto their wireless phones.

The software also offers security in that if end users lose their phone, sensitive corporate data on the device can be deleted remotely.

Cisco has been testing Orative Enterprise Server internally, but it is not a paying customer. One IT manager at the company, who asked not to be named, says Orative’s directory feature “allows users to feel like they are part of a worldwide team regardless of where they are.”

The phone book also has a presence-aware feature that lets users see if employees they are looking to call are available.

A notification feature lets end users send reminders or meeting requests to individuals or user groups through the Orative portal, which is part of the server. By integrating an Orative server with current Exchange or Domino servers, end users also can have reminders from their personal calendar sent directly to their wireless device.

Cisco especially likes Orative’s security features. “If an employee loses a phone or it’s stolen, with a push of a button all of the information on that phone can be destroyed. That’s very valuable for a company like ours that supports about 80,000 phones a year,” the IT manager says.

Orative’s software starts at $5,000 for a server, plus $2,500 for a Client Access License Starter Pack that supports 25 users.

Customers seeking wireless-to-PBX integration might soon also be able to go the services route.

BroadSoft recently rolled out an application that the company says will let wireless service providers make available Centrex-like offerings to business customers. Services could include features such as auto attendant, call center functionality, abbreviated dialing and instant messaging. BroadSoft says it is in talks with service providers in the U.S., Europe and Asia, but isn’t naming names.

Companies looking for a product from their current IP PBX vendors will likely have to wait until at least the third quarter, when Avaya plans to deliver.

Avaya announced in March that it is developing Communications Manager software that will be part of its MultiVantage Communications Applications suite that will let users port PBX features to specific wireless devices. Initially, Avaya’s system only will work with Nokia Series 60-based wireless devices running SymbianOS. Gartner’s Redman says Avaya also is working with Motorola and plans to expand the list of wireless devices its system will work with.

The drawback to Avaya’s planned offerings is that they only will work with its own products.

Gartner’s Redman says he expects Cisco, Nortel and Siemens to offer similar features by mid-2006.

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