How the West will be won

In recent months, a number of vendors playing the IP telephony market have claimed they have a model suited to ruling the SMB market. But the results of a recent ARN survey suggest none have won a significant number of hearts and minds in the channel to date.

The story goes something like this. At the top end of the market, traditional telephony vendors such as Alcatel and Avaya and networking heavyweights including Cisco and Nortel are having a lot of success. At the other end, Skype is revolutionising consumer telephony and expatriates all over the world are calling home via pre-paid VoIP cards without even knowing they are using the technology.

But SMB, potentially the biggest market in terms of dollar value, is something of a Wild West with no vendor managing to build a dominant position yet.

In the survey I alluded to, we asked resellers to name a preferred IP telephony brand. While Cisco finished on top, with a number of respondents citing support as its key differentiator, it was selected by less than 12 per cent. In total, nearly 20 different brands were put forward as an answer. They included a host of different approaches from Asterisk, Ericsson, Grandstream, Mitel, ShoreTel, VegaStream and Zultys among others.

What that tells me is that plenty of resellers are dabbling in the technology and looking to differentiate themselves from competitors. It also suggests they are looking to find value for money because SMBs cannot afford enterprise solutions and have little or no interest in the advanced feature sets.

Integrators operating in the enterprise market are moving sales conversations away from dial tone in favour of winning deals on selling smart applications. The future-proofing of networks is also a key weapon in their armoury. But such strategic thinking will win few friends in the SMB market. For many users, any conversations about telephony are still solely about dial tone.

At a round table event ARN held last week, a collection of Cisco integrators made it quite clear that they find it very difficult to be competitive in IP telephony for any user with less than 150 seats. An edited transcript of that discussion will appear in next week's issue. But if they are unlikely to make much of a dent in SMB, what model is going to be successful?

The answer, it seems, is most likely to be managed services provided by the telcos. Last week's column suggested the telcos would become the biggest threat to traditional IT resellers as the market develops. As applications become increasingly smart and target particular verticals, the trend for telcos and other service providers to give hardware away when users sign on the dotted line will continue to grow. The convenience and ease of use this model will offer SMB users will be extremely difficult for anybody leading with hardware to compete against.