Move over proprietary telephony systems. Australian engineer David Rowe started the Free Telephony Project three years ago to build an affordable IP-PABX system out of free hardware and software. That’s right, the design of the Free Telephony Project IP-PABX is open for any interested person to review and improve. With the first Free Telephony Project products now available and in use world-wide, Rowe hopes it will go along way to improving the availability of voice services in developing nations. In this edition of Open Source Identity, TechWorld interviews Rowe to uncover the burgeoning business of open product development.
How did you start working with open source software?
I started working with Linux in 1999, as I saw a business opportunity for the computer telephony company I owned at the time. We were the first company in the computer telephony space to "open source" our driver, which really helped us open a new, non-Windows market.
You have applied both open hardware and software to the design of a small telephone system to create the Free Telephony Project. How is this project going and how can you compare its development to more traditional "closed lab" product development?
It's going well. The IP04 embedded Asterisk IP-PABX is in mass production and in daily use by thousands of people around the world. The IP04 was developed by a community of hardware and firmware developers around the world, using community development methods, just like an open source software project.
During development we enjoyed many advantages, for example some great engineering talent (open projects attract the best and brightest), and people that were attracted by technology challenges rather than just being paid for turning up for the day.
Ultimately this means a better product, lower bug count, lower development costs and quicker time to market. The IP04 prototype made its first phone call just one week after the solder cooled. In 20 years of product development I have never seen such efficient development.
How has the Free Telephony Project grown and how much of a community has developed around it?
There are now at least 14 open hardware designs that have been built using Free Telephony Project technology, plus several non-open designs that have benefited from our technology. Several businesses have been started in the embedded Asterisk space and more than 1000 IP04s have been built and deployed around the world.
The concept of open source software is becoming well understood by the IT industry, but what is the knowledge of open source hardware like? How willing are hardware vendors to open source their designs?
Open hardware is a new field, and we are feeling our way. Imagine the reception for open software in 1992. The business models for open hardware are still falling out. Some companies are using our open designs to bootstrap their internal hardware projects, others (such as Atcom) are working with our community to put our designs into mass production. Atcom get the advantage of working a group of skilled hardware and firmware engineers – skills that it doesn't have internally.
When can we expect the free PABX systems to be available as a mass-market product and how much will it cost the consumer? What can consumers and small businesses get out of the product and how will this product provide low-cost telephony for people in developing countries?
Well, the IP04 is an Asterisk box with 4 analog ports. So it can do anything that a PC and PCI card Asterisk solution can do, however at lower cost, lower power, an attractive form factor and no moving parts.
Asterisk really needs Linux and command line skills, which makes it less applicable to the mass market. This is gradually changing as effective GUIs are developed for Asterisk and the IP04. The IP04 starts at $AU379. The IP04 is being sold to Asterisk users and VARs, like ITSPs, who configure the IP04 for their network and deploy it at the customer’s site.
I am also working with development agencies in Africa on using the IP04 in the developing world. The principle advantage is low power – the IP04 uses as little as 1W. The open hardware (and software) approach means that the IP04 can be "Africanised" to meet local conditions, for example, enhanced lightning protection, local language support, and even local manufacture (bypassing tariff barriers and building local industry).