Today I had an enjoyable phone meeting with Chris Lyman, the head
honcho at Fonality. Anytime
I have a fun meeting with a vendor it's a bonus; they're all nice
folks, but they're not always entertaining. Some are, well, I won't
say boring, but certainly dry. So whatever else Fonality has going
for it, it has a fun CEO who seems excited about the company. The
whole VoIP space is fascinating to me anyway, because it
demonstrates the sheer power and inventiveness of open source.
Let's take a wee trip back in time, back to when Richard
Stallman had no gray hairs or wrinkles. Back to the time when RMS
and the fine folks at the GNU project were writing
compilers, debuggers, fileutils, shellutils, binutils, coreutils,
diffutils, findutils, fontutils, Emacs, the Bash shell, and all the
high-quality Linux tools that we take for granted, and that are the
envy of Unix admins everywhere. Let us not forget the GPL, the
General Public License, which ensured that all of that great code
would be protected, freely available, and freely modifiable and
re-distributable. That's a pretty neat trick.
Then along came Intel and the affordable, open i386
Then along came the Internet, and geeks could talk to other
geeks on the other side of the globe without paying big phone
bills, and they could share complex information.
Then along came Linus Torvalds, who used that inexpensive Intel
hardware platform and GNU tools to write his own operating system,
and he used the infant Internet to get other people interested in
improving his fledgling operating system. In fifteen short years
his little old homegrown operating system has grown into a popular
powerhouse that scales effortlessly from tiny routers and
telephones to giant mainframes and clusters, and runs on every
hardware platform imaginable.
Then along came Mark Spencer, the inventor of the Asterisk iPBX. Because of GNU,
Intel, and Linux, Mr. Spencer was able to launch a telephony
revolution. Before VoIP (voice over IP), PBX (Private Branch
Exchange) systems were hideously expensive, difficult to
administer, inflexible, and very limited in functionality. They
were barely advanced from the era of Alexander Graham Bell.
Then Mr. Spencer invented Asterisk, the first software PBX. He
used Linux, GNU tools, the inexpensive and powerful x86 hardware
platform, and the Internet to turn the telephone world upside-down.
Now the big tech gold rush is in the VoIP space, and traditional
telephony is finally, after all these years, being forced to
innovate and progress.
Now we come full circle to Mr. Lyman at Fonality. Fonality has
two main products: Trixbox and PBXtra. PBXtra is an iPBX system
derived from Asterisk. Trixbox used to be Asterisk@Home, which was
the first software iPBX "appliance." It was a complete bundle on a
single bootable CD that included Asterisk, useful administration
tools and database backends, and the CentOS operating system.
Asterisk@Home was pretty much a one-man show, invented and
maintained by Andrew Gillis in his spare time.
Then Asterisk@Home became Trixbox. Then Fonality acquired
Trixbox, hired Andrew Gillis, and allocated additional personnel
and resources to it. Fonality has added a considerable amount of
polish and functionality, and it is still a free download.
Oh, and let's not forget CentOS Linux, which is a popular
operating system for server "appliances." CentOS is a free-beer
clone of Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Yes, Red Hat gives itself away,
and yet still makes money. Asterisk gives itself away to its
competitors, and still makes money.
I apologize for the cliches, but this illustrates several
principals: if you grasp too tightly, you will lose. If you give,
you will get. Creativity and genuine invention can't be controlled;
they need a fertile, free ecosystem.
Of course some folks are only interested in the bottom line, in
dollars and cents. I'll wager that the economic contributions of
FOSS to the world economies are far more significant than are
reflected in mere sales figures. I'll wager that a certain
notorious unpopular monopolist creates a net loss, thanks to losses
due to malware, unreliability, high operating costs, its success at
crushing competition, and high barriers to interoperability.
I make a good and satisfying living thanks to Free and Open
Source software, and I'm not even a programmer. As Linus likes to
say, quoting Sir Isaac Newton: "If I have seen further it is by
standing on the shoulders of Giants." Sir Newton may even have
cribbed the saying from someone else. Thank you to all of the
giants who made all of this incredible richness and opportunity