The second life of PBX

Research in Motion Inc.’s recent acquisition of Ascendent Systems signals growing interest in the idea of making remote devices – including handhelds like RIM’s BlackBerry – into extensions of office phone systems.

Waterloo, Ont.-based RIM announced March 10 that it had acquired Ascendent, a San Jose, Calif., company whose Voice Mobility Suite allows private branch exchanges to “push” voice calls to remote devices and gives mobile workers access to the functions of the PBX. “You then have full PBX functionality wherever you are,” says Heather Howland, senior marketing manager at Ascendent.

The BlackBerry is among the devices Ascendent’s software supports, and the California company was a member of RIM’s independent software vendor program. Ascendent also has relationships with other technology companies, including Microsoft Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., and Intel Corp.

Ascendent isn’t the only company extending office phone functions to mobile workers, and there will be more, forecasts Jon Arnold, an independent telecommunications consultant based in Toronto. “The whole idea of mobility in the enterprise is really a big deal,” Arnold says.

RIM and Cisco recently announced that BlackBerry 7270 devices can be used as portable handsets for Cisco’s Unified CallManager 5.0 within enterprises that have WiFi wireless local-area networks. Cisco also offers its own wireless phone, says Alex Hadden-Boyd, director of marketing for unified communications at Cisco.

Hadden-Boyd says Cisco is conducting trials of remote PBX functions on mobile phones with Finnish cell phone maker Nokia Corp. and is working with other cell phone manufacturers on similar projects.

Avaya Inc., the Basking Ridge, N.J., Internet Protocol telephony and contact centre technology company, is working with cell phone manufacturers and others to extend IP telephony features to mobile devices. “We’ve actually been developing products in this area for quite some time,” says Fritz Ollom, senior manager in Avaya’s IP telephony and mobility division.

It started about six years ago with the ability to take calls made to an office number and transfer them to a mobile phone, Ollom says. More recently, Avaya has been making the functions of the PBX – conveniences such as the ability to reach a co-worker by dialing a four-digit extension number – available to mobile workers.

Ollom says the company has been working with Stockholm-based Nokia Inc. to provide this type of capability on mobile phones using Nokia’s Symbian operating system. It has also developed an IP phone client for Microsoft’s Windows Mobile system and is working with Holtsville, N.Y.-based Symbol Technologies Inc. to integrate that same technology with Symbol’s MC50 personal digital assistant.

Microsoft Office Communicator Mobile, announced in February, includes integrated voice over IP capabilities for mobile devices.

Arnold says others such as Mississauga, Ont.-based Nortel Networks Corp. and Sweden’s LM Ericsson are also active in this area.

There is a strong demand in industries such as retail and health care for devices that are portable within the enterprise and offer the functions of a standard office phone, Howland says. Hadden-Boyd agrees, adding that there is also interest in taking office-phone functions farther afield among mobile professionals such as lawyers.

The financial services industry is another promising market, Ollom says.“High revenue producing people who have to be accessible, where there’s a lot of money on the line.”

Ollom says there are already significant deployments, and all those interviewed say they expect to see more extension of PBX capabilities to mobile devices. “People and enterprises both put a high value on mobility,” Arnold says.


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