Open source PBXs make corporate gains; how much is up for debate

Open source IP PBX studies show gains but numbers vary wildly

The bad economy may be a boon to relatively inexpensive open-source IP PBXs, which one study says already account for nearly 18% of all PBXs installed last year in North American business networks.

Because they are generally less expensive, open source products may become attractive to more corporate users as their budgets are cut, laying the groundwork for a growth spurt, according to the recent study by Eastern Management Group.

“The price of [open-source] PBXs is so low as to attract more than passing attention,” says John Malone, president and CEO of the group.

If the study is accurate, it means that open source vendors as a group are selling more PBX phone lines than any single PBX vendor that makes the usual list of market leaders.

The study relies on market models and more than 7,000 interviews with IT executives, vendors and resellers and claims to find 2.85 million VoIP endpoints that have gone uncounted in traditional tallies, including its own.

Via surveys of IT executives as well as open-source PBX vendors and VARS, the study concluded that use of this gear grew 40% last year and will increase 40% in 2009, partially fueled by tighter IT budgets.

According to his North American numbers on PBX and key systems measured by lines, open source systems account for 17.94%. He credits the Asterisk open source PBX, with Nortel comes in second for 85% of those deployments or 15.24% of overall installations last year.

Nortel comes in second with behind all open source with 16.56%, Cisco comes in third with 12.53% and Avaya comes in fourth with 11%.

However, Eastern’s findings are at odds with studies done by other market analysis firms that follow PBX sales. For example, Infonetics sets growth of overall PBX sales at 1% in 2008 not the 40% Eastern Management Group reports, says Mattheus Machowinski, a directing analyst for Infonetics. “We expect the market to stabilize in 2010, resume growth in 2011 and hit double-digit annual growth by 2012,” he says.

He ranks Nortel, Cisco and Avaya as one, two and three for sales as measured by lines in 2008, but had open source vendor marketshare below 1%.

He seemed surprised at the Eastern results. “It’s provocative; its headline grabbing,” he said. “If it’s really almost 20%, don’t you think the PBX market [as reported by himself and other analysts] would have declined quite a bit last year?” he says. “I would have expected the PBX market to have plunged.”

Infonetics did find that the worldwide growth of PBX sales did grow 1% last year, but that growth figure was also a drop from the 7% growth it reported the year before. “I would say it was the economy,” he says, not the incursion of open source alternatives that accounts for the decline.

Machowinski said open source PBX vendors should be willing to claim such numbers. “If this is really the case, why won’t companies like Digium report what their line shipments are?” he says. “You’d think that would be something they’d like to provide.”

Bill Miller, vice president of product management for Digium, which sells commercial Asterisk products and peripherals, says all the company knows for sure about the software s the number of downloads, but not whether they are actually used.

But he has estimates based on downloads and the purchase of peripherals such as line cards and codecs for the systems that give an indication of what I actually in use. He puts that number at 2.7 million lines installed in North America last year, which is more than Eastern Management’s estimate. He estimates that just 5% of the downloaded Asterisk PBX software is in production use at businesses.

Machowinski says that someone could install a free open source IP PBX but that doesn’t necessarily mean they would have bought one from a proprietary vendor if there were no open source alternatives. So the 18% that use open source might not represent a loss to the leading non-open-source PBX vendors. “Even if it’s 18%, does it displace 18% of the market?” he says.

Malone acknowledges the difficulty of accurately measuring open source PBX use. The software can be downloaded anonymously with no way to know if it is ever put into a live business network, he says.

The open source study is the most massive one his firm has undertaken in 30 years. It relied on using raw download numbers plugged into an analysis model built based on responses the firm got from those surveyed as one predictor of the market.

Malone says that within three weeks he will have complete 2008 PBX sales data provided by manufacturers to plug into his calculations that will result in refined 2009 projections.

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