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Catching up with Digium, Asterisk and Mark Spencer

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CHICAGO — What was open-source IP PBX leader Digium doing here at the NXTcomm show, traditionally the haunt of the biggest of big telecom players? Besides attracting a fair share of traffic to its small, out-of-the way booth, founder and CTO Mark Spencer spent some time with us, introducing new CEO Danny Windham and free-thinking a bit about where Digium and Asterisk might go next in the expanding world of open-source communications.

Stressing first that “there’s no announcements here,” Spencer blue-skied a bit when asked what we might see in the future from Digium and Asterisk, and included scaling up to support bigger systems — enterprise and perhaps even service-provider platforms — as well as possibly building its own end-user interface for IP communications, to become more of a turnkey provider.

(Before we start, we do have to honor Spencer for possibly being the only company founder ever at the guys-in-ties Supercomm/Globalcomm/NXTcomm gathering to hit the show floor in clamdigger shorts and an ironic T-shirt touting his own coding skilz. Hey, it went great with the trademark hot-orange Digium booth carpet. Anyway.)

Paul Kapustka: What’s next for Digium, in terms of products and technology?

Mark Spencer: Scalability, both up and down in size. Enterprises and even some service providers already use Asterisk today in parts of their operations; we want to do the right things to make it better for them.

Another important direction for us is how the end-user interacts with the [IP communications] system. If you have control over both ends, that provides more flexibility in what you can do. Realistically, Microsoft is a big threat in this space, since they own a lot of the user experience for productivity apps. For IP communications, my goal is to get there first.

[In its booth, Digium was also showing a “hot alpha” of a new version of its IP PBX appliance, one that Spencer said could support between 250-500 users, up from the 5-50 space the current appliance is targeted at.]

Paul Kapustka: Danny, now that you’ve been at Digium for a bit, how big is the potential market, and what are Digium’s prospects?

Danny Windham: I’m not sure there’s any one number out there yet for the market, but I know it ends with a ‘B,’ as in billions. The IP PBX market alone could be $8 billion in five years. As traditional telephony is disrupted by IP, the opportunity is there for Digium to take share. It’s a great spot and a great time.

Paul Kapustka: What is the typical Digium customer today, in terms of size?

Steve Harvey (VP of worldwide sales): The “typical” customer is probably about 50 seats. There are some who just use the appliance and support five, six, seven users. But it’s really hard to say what’s ‘typical,’ because people are using [Asterisk] in so many different ways. The IVR and voice mail features are being used by people with legacy PBXs — they just bolt us on and use it exclusively for IVR or voice mail.

The appliance, along with some auto-provisioning work we’re doing with people like Polycom, is opening up a whole new market for us, attracting more ‘plug-and-play’ VARs instead of our traditional reseller who has Linux experience and builds systems from the ground up.