How dead is the PBX really?

PBXs will be around awhile despite Microsoft's declaration that they're dead  

The role of the PBX is changing in importance, but it's still too early to issue a death certificate, according to Infonetics.

PBXs took a big hit when the economy faltered two years ago -- sales dropped 25% in 2009 -- and they have been struggling to rebound, says Matthias Machowinski, an analyst with Infonetics, but they are far from out, as Microsoft suggested last week with its announcement of its latest unified communications platform Lync 2010, a renaming of its Office Communications Server line.

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"Microsoft likes to rattle the cage," he says, but the fact remains that the major advances made with Lync 2010 make the platform better suited to replace traditional PBXs by adding missing features, an acknowledgement that PBX features in some form are a must.

The hope, apparently, is to convince customers that, "Lync is really ready to replace any PBX you have," as was claimed last week by Microsoft's Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president for Office, Lync and speech, who declared, "The era of the PBX, folks, is over."

The term PBX is used to talk about phone systems -- either TDM, IP or hybrid -- that handle voice-call control, a feature that is rolled to a greater or lesser degree in UC platforms.

Even by Microsoft's own count, the PBX has been lingering for years, at least since 2007 when it announced Office Communications Server 2007 and then-Chairman Bill Gates claimed it foreshadowed the demise of the PBX.

But PBX sales are still significant enough that Infonetics tracks them as a separate category in which Cisco, ShoreTel and Siemens are the leaders, he says, by virtue of their IP PBX sales. And while there may be a shift from PBXs toward UC, that's not likely to happen overnight.

For example, the shift from traditional TDM PBXs to IP PBXs has been ongoing for more than 10 years. But in the United States now, 75% of phone systems are now IP, so a quarter of them are still TDM, and among those IP PBXs, some use TDM technology with older phones, Machowinski notes. "My point is it's a big market and it takes time to change the trajectory of a market," he says.

Shifting from PBXs to UC and collaboration platforms will take a long time as well, he says.

Making a distinction between pure PBXs that are voice-only and their eventual replacement by UC servers that support voice, video, instant messaging, e-mail, conferencing and collaboration is difficult. For example, Cisco's Unified Communications Manager counts as a PBX. So will Avaya's Aura communications server that was introduced this year once Avaya starts reporting revenues from it, he says.

It's difficult to sort out PBXs from UC, says Machowinski, because many vendor sell products that cross into both areas. But to avoid double-counting revenues gleaned from products, Infonetics sorts products into buckets for PBXs, communicators and UC applications.

Microsoft's Lync server -- which the company says can replace PBXs -- is counted as a UC platform by Infonetics. Part of the reason is that the platform evolved from desktop applications, but also because in practice most Micorsoft deployments in most cases are adjuncts to PBXs, Machowinski says.

In the pure PBX market, Cisco is in the lead with Shoretel and Siemens lagging behind. Cisco jumped into PBX sales with its IP PBX and has come to dominate relatively quickly, Machowinski notes. "The incumbents say if that could happen in 10 years with Cisco, what will happen with Microsoft in the next 10 years?”

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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