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Oct 12 2007   11:34PM GMT

Bizarro VoIP: Is it evil? Do you care?

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Recently, Tom Keating at TMC wrote in his blog about Digium acquiring Switchvox, a proprietary Asterisk-based VoIP solution. Keating had interviewed Asterisk inventor and Digium CTO, Mark Spencer, who explained that one of the goals of that acquisition was to assimilate some of the proprietary technologies from Switchvox back into open source. Keating remarked:

I recalled Mark Spencer’s IT Expo keynote where he espoused the benefits of truly 100% open source solutions and how this contrasted sharply with some of Digium’s competitors such as Fonality. Again, Mark called hybrid-open/proprietary solutions “evil.” I couldn’t help but think of Digium vs. Fonality as Superman vs. Bizarro. Who is Bizarro and who is Superman I leave for you to decide…

One month ago, at TMC’s Internet Telephony Conference & Expo in Los Angeles, I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Spencer. Unfortunately, I had missed the relevant part of Mark’s keynote, which (fortunately) Greg Galitzine summed up nicely in his blog:

[Spencer] mentioned the evolution in the open source world, where things have gone from a simple “good versus evil” debate (open source vs. proprietary) to a complicated new world where we find open source (good) fake open source (bad) proprietary open source (evil), and even proprietary hybrid hosted (really evil).

Naturally, being drawn to all things evil, the next day at the conference I met with the dark lord of the open source PBX world, Chris Lyman. OK, Chris isn’t actually evil (to my knowledge) — he’s the CEO of Fonality. Fonality, one of the “proprietary hybrid hosted” companies makes low-cost phone systems — according to Lyman, their Trixbox platform is the first and biggest built on top of Asterisk code.

Trixbox

Chris Lyman shows off the trixbox appliance with a tricked-out case mod.(And it’s green, too…)

According to Fonality’s website, being a hybrid-hosted phone system means that the free software is first downloaded by a business and installed on a local computer and local IP phones. After this step, the local computer connects to the Fonality network where server health, call quality and usage are constantly monitored. The hybrid-hosted nature of trixbox Pro also securely extends the phone system outside the corporate firewall, so an employee’s extension can follow them when they work from home, remotely on a laptop, or even on a mobile phone. (Thanks to Alicia diVittorio for tracking down the definition.)

trixbox girls

Sounds like a pretty good arrangement, especially for SMBs who may not have the resources on staff to manage a premise-based solution. In a tip on SearchVoIP.com, Yankee Group senior vice president Zeus Kerravala advised companies:

Even if you’re a predominantly do-it-yourself IT organization, consider a hybrid environment where the hosted services are used for some of the smaller branches and telecommuters. This will probably scale much more easily for you as you move more locations over to VoIP.

What I’m trying to figure out here is why the proprietary hybrid hosted model is “really evil,” and I can’t seem to track down Mark Spencer to comment. (Hey Mark, if this is a secret alter ego thing, I’d be just as happy to talk with Superman!) Personally, I’ve been a proponent of open source for some time now. I understand the benefits of encouraging innovation and avoiding vendor lock-in and lowering per-port charges. So, is Fonality locking in their customers? Are they corrupting open source ideals? Will they stifle innovation? Will mixing open source and proprietary code cause an explosive reaction, like encasing Kryptonian crystal in green kryptonite?

And, despite all this, “Most of the people buying the phone systems in the SMB space don’t even care if it’s open source,” Chad Agate, Co-Founder & CEO of NeoPhonetics, a Digium partner, said during a conference session on “Selecting an open source VoIP solution for the SMB.”

When I asked Lyman about the whole “very evil” issue, he pointed out that Digium has their own tricky issues and aren’t as pure as the driven snow when it comes to open source and their “Digium Waiver” (Read xrobau’s blog on Fonality and the GPL for more about that.)

“This shouldn’t be a war of the Davids; the Davids should join forces and take on Goliath, which is Cisco,” Lyman said. “Fonality and Digium don’t equal one half of one percent of U.S. PBX market share.”

Hmmm…

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  • L Kenson
    Mark Spencer is in a bit of hot water these days. He turned the heat up on himself or so it appears. First, he used his keynote at ITEXPO to bash his number one competition, Fonality, by calling their business model "really evil" for not being fully open source. Whenever you start to sling words about good vs. evil, you are bound to get a flashlight shined on you. So, by doing this he opened himself up to wave of criticism as he never addressed Digium's own long-standing closed source secret. Digium has long sold a closed source version of Asterisk called "Asterisk Business Edition". The tricky little thing (wait, the "evil" little thing) about Business Edition is that when a company buys it from Digium, they are allowed to make changes and don't ever have to give those changes back to the GPL or open community (so long as they continue to pay and annual "maintenance" fee to Digium.) So, in effect, this little contract allows the company to continue to pull new code from the open community but never give their own enhancements to it back. This is clearly not in the spirit of open source. This is in the spirit of profiting off of closed software. Not a problem, really, until you start giving speeches with you perched on the moral high ground. Wonder why reporters never discuss that Digium's profit model is actually based on a closed source licensing schema? Maybe because they don't do their homework? Or, perhaps they feel that all that open source mumbo jumbo is too complex to dig into? But, isn't it he job of the journalist to go beyond the talking points of a company's PR department? Then, two weeks ago, Digium further colored their own self-evangelized status of innocence. They bought a 100% closed-source Asterisk PBX company called switchVOX. When asked several times about their plans Mark Spencer would only make vague comments about how certain portions will be made open. It is clear that Digium will not open source all of their new acquisition, which will in effect deepen Digium's long-standing commitment to closed source software. Business models are not based on good or evil. They are based on making a profit. And their responsibility with their customers is to be 100% honest with customers about how that business model works. Give the customers the honest information and let them vote with their wallets. So, Mark Spencer's vision of a good vs. evil is simplistic and binary in nature. What he should focus on is being 100% truthful with Digium's own closed source strategy. Evil can only fester in the shadows of dishonesty.
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  • AmyKucharik
    Hi L Kenson, I wanted to thank you for your comment and respond to the following section: "Wonder why reporters never discuss that Digium’s profit model is actually based on a closed source licensing schema? Maybe because they don’t do their homework? Or, perhaps they feel that all that open source mumbo jumbo is too complex to dig into? But, isn’t it he job of the journalist to go beyond the talking points of a company’s PR department?" I have actually been keeping an eye on this issue for a while now, although I have been reluctant to bash Digium without fully understanding the issue. My opinion at the moment is that it isn't an issue of journalists not doing their job, but that the open source press and the VoIP press aren't necessarily the same people, nor do the VoIP crowd often fully understand the finer points of the GPL or worry about the "spirit" of open source the same way that the press who've been covering Linux for 5-10 years do. There's no Bruce Perens in the VoIP corner yet to bring these issues to light. And again, I wonder whether people buying PBXs are even that concerned about open source and moral high ground; whether Digium's profit model is based on a closed source licensing schema or not, the masses will, as you said, vote with their wallets. So as long as Digium is not breaking any laws, it may not make a difference to anyone except open source pundits.
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  • Voipguru
    to L Kenson: The tricky little thing (wait, the “evil” little thing) about Business Edition is that when a company buys it from Digium, they are allowed to make changes and don’t ever have to give those changes back to the GPL or open community (so long as they continue to pay and annual “maintenance” fee to Digium.)" In all fairness, this isn't accurate. Companies are not allowed to make any changes to asterisk business edition's code, or even have access to it. Asterisk business edition is not an enterprise version of asterisk with more features, and it's quite well known that it is based on an older version of 1.2 asterisk. They sell a closed source version of the open source code because that way they can garauntee that the source code has not been changed, and thus can provide support for it. In all reality, when you buy asterisk business edition, you are pretty much buying support. I'm also confused as to your knowledge about open source in general with these types of comments. Under the GPL, anyone can make any change they want to open source software without releasing it back to the public. It clearly defines cases like this, and the stipulation is, that you must release the source to any GPL licensed software, *IF* you release that software. Any modifications you make that for internal use do not have to be redistributed back whatsoever. I would suggest you read the entire GPL a little more carefully.
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