Chapter 1: A Telephony Revolution

An incredible revolution is under way. It has been a long time in coming, but now that it has started, there will be no stopping it. It is taking place in an area of technology that has lapsed embarrassingly far behind every other industry that calls itself high-tech. The industry is telecommunications, and the revolution is being fueled by an open source Private Branch eXchange (PBX) called Asterisk.

Telecommunications is arguably the last major electronics industry that has (until now) remained untouched by the open source revolution. Major telecommunications manufacturers still build ridiculously expensive, incompatible systems, running complicated, ancient code on impressively engineered yet obsolete hardware.

As an example, Nortel's Business Communications Manager kludges together a Windows NT 4.0 server, a 15-year-old VXWorks-based Key Telephone Switch, and a 700-MHz PC. All this can be yours for between 5 and 15 thousand dollars, not including telephones. If you want it to actually do anything interesting, you'll have to pay extra licensing fees for closed, limited-functionality, shrink-wrapped applications. Customization? Forget it - it's not in the plan. Future technology and standards compliance? Give them a year or two - they're working on it.

All of the major telecommunications manufacturers offer similar-minded products. They don't want you to have flexibility or choice; they want you to be locked in to their product cycles.

Asterisk changes all that. With Asterisk, no one is telling you how your phone system works, or what technology you are limited to. If you want it, you can have it. Asterisk lovingly embraces the concept of standards compliance, while also enjoying the freedom to develop its own innovations. What you choose to implement is up to you - Asterisk imposes no limits.

Naturally, this incredible flexibility comes with a price: Asterisk is not a simple system to configure. This is not because it's illogical, confusing, or cryptic; to the contrary, it is very sensible and practical. People’s eyes light up when they first see an Asterisk dialplan and begin to contemplate the possibilities. But when there are literally thousands of ways to achieve a result, the process naturally requires extra effort. Perhaps it can be compared to building a house: the components are relatively easy to understand, but a person contemplating such a task must either a) enlist competent help or b) develop the required skills through instruction, practice, and a good book on the subject.

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