The Apple switchboard

When Brent Albert went searching for a new phone system to serve his Oklahoma motorcycle dealership, he didn’t end up with the fanciest, cheapest, or most technically dazzling. He went with a FacetPhone system that uses the Mac mini ($570-770;  ) as a hub for routing calls, storing voicemails, and keeping his salespeople connected to their customers.

Why? Because Albert, the owner of Fat Albert’s Motorsports, loves Apple products.

“That it was on a Mac, to be honest with you,” he said of his March decision to go with FacetPhone. “We’ve been looking at phone systems for about two years, and didn’t even know it was an option. We were out at Macworld [Expo] and got to talking to these guys.”

Albert isn’t alone. Companies that offer private branch exchange systems—known as PBX, the multi-extension phone systems for routing calls within businesses and other institutions—have identified Apple products like the Mac and iPhone as a growing frontier in the market. They are targeting new- and small-business owners who, like Albert, increasingly use those devices at home and see the new systems as easy-to-use, low-cost ways of getting a company running.

“We think Apple products have made a phenomenal inroads in that particular market,” said Mike Storella, chief operating officer of Snom, whose Snom One PBX software can also be run on a Mac mini. “There’s a natural tendency in those small companies, when they’re building infrastructure, they go with what they know.”

FacetPhone PBX
Brent Albert, of Fat Albert's Motorsports, shows off the Mac mini that runs the FacetPhone PBX system his salespeople depend upon.

There are different ways of getting the job done. Products like FacetPhone and Snom One use the Mac as the platform, often—but not always—letting business users save additional money by tying into VoIP services like Vonage instead of traditional telephone landline companies. Other products, like AltiGen’s iFusion phone system, put the iPhone at the center of a more extensive business communication system.

The advantages

Apple-based PBX systems offer advantages beyond mere familiarity:

They’re inexpensive Albert said he saw systems—including non-Mac options—priced at anywhere from $3,500 to $7,500 for his 10-extension setup at the motorcycle business. The FacetPhone came down on the lower end of that price range, he said, at around $4,600. “The cost was very competitive to all the other systems we looked at,” he said.

Indeed, The Maynard Group—a California consulting company that helps businesses choose their communications systems—suggests that the base phone system for a small business can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 for hardware installation. After that, a VoIP-based system will cost the business at least $50 per employee per month; that’s far cheaper than Maynard’s minimum estimate of $800 per employee per month for a traditional PBX system in a small business.

Mac minis, meanwhile, start at around $600. “It’s priced right,” said Snom’s Storella.

After that, the costs vary from service to service. Snom, for example, provides a free version of its Snom One software that will service up to 10 extensions; the Snom One Yellow software, which serves up to 20 extensions, retails for around $650. (The system requires Snom's phones, which start at $80 apiece.) In addition to the Mac mini, FacetPhone users buy their own phones, and pay $180 per line for the first year of support, and $23 per line the years after that.

"If you buy really expensive IP phones, costs can add up," said Jim Bryant, president of FacetCorp, which makes the FacetPhone. "But there are some really cheap IP phones."

Mike Plumer, vice president of sales for AltiGen, said the iPhone-centric iFusion can also save companies money by putting their employees’ personal iPhones to work, or providing one company iPhone for use in both the office and on the road. “If someone has invested in a smart device,” Plumer said, “it really is redundant to have a more expensive and often less-sophisticated piece of technology on your desktop.”

They’re easy to use That’s long been a selling feature of consumer-based Apple products, but it appears to be true in the workplace, as well—and can save companies money on maintenance costs.

Peter Joo is the network manager for General Dynamics, the defense industry contractor. He has been using the iFusion in his office for several months. “Typically, with a legacy phone system, you have to have a technician who is trained on PBX,” he said. “This you just plug into a wall, pop in the iPhone, and that’s it.”

iFusion
Peter Joo, the network manager for General Dynamics, demonstrates his iFusion system.

Albert said the same is true of his FacetPhone system, aided by his familiarity with the Mac operating system. “I can see how many of my salespeople are busy, how many calls there are to the service counter. I can see my GM, Andy, how many voicemails are in his queue,” he said. “All the other systems I looked at, you had to do that through the phone and remember the prompts. With FacetPhone, it’s basically a drag-and-drop type of deal.”

FacetPhone
The FacetPhone user interface lets users track and transfer calls, voicemails, and more.

They’re the future Increasingly, experts say, these PBX systems will be running Voice over IP digital lines instead of traditional phone landlines—Snom’s Storella says he expects businesses to largely convert to VoIP usage over the next five years; and analysts have suggested the VoIP PBX systems will be a $9 billion industry by 2015. But traditional phone companies aren’t going down without a fight: Albert said he planned to convert to a VoIP system when he bought the FacetPhone; his phone provider countered with a deal to get up to 10 lines relatively cheap.

Storella said that call-quality concerns with VoIP service have largely vanished, with some providers offering high-definition audio. “Clearly, Voice over IP in the early days was less stable, by far, than what it is now,” he said, adding that now, “the acoustic experience is better.”

Jon Arnold, a Toronto-based analyst of the VoIP industry, says the technology has come far enough to be reliable for enterprise use—but most businesses have so far proven reluctant to entirely cut the cord with traditional telephone companies. While VoIP services that use the “public Internet”—like Vonage—are reliable, Arnold said, businesses that want to ensure the security and reliability of their phone service might prefer to use companies with their own infrastructure, such as cable companies that offer phone service, or bigger companies like 8X8 or M5 Networks.

“VoIP can be used in any business environment pretty confidently,” Arnold said. “If you’re with a reputable provider, odds are you’ll have good enough service to make the move.”

What else to consider

The key question for any business-based telephone system, of course, is reliability. You don’t want to lose service—and thousands of dollars in sales—due to a faulty system.

This is where Macs—which tend to be less crash-prone and suffer fewer security problems—have a particular advantage over PC-based PBX systems. “If I use a PC and it breaks down once a week, I’m OK,” said Kevin Ford, president of Parliant, which recently discontinued its PhoneValet and PhoneHerald PBX products to focus on iOS apps. “If I have a phone service and it breaks down more than 30 minutes a year, you’re outraged.”

Jim Bryant, president of Dallas-based FacetCorp—maker of the FacetPhone—agrees. His company also offers a Linux-based PBX system. The Mac mini, he said, “does seem like a very solid platform. You want your phone server to be on an uninterruptible power supply, and the Mac mini is good from that standpoint because it has low power consumption.”

There have been some previous false starts on the road to putting Apple products at the center of a business’s communications system. Snom once created an iPod Shuffle-based PBX, but spun that product off into its own company that faded quickly. Parliant found success with its PhoneValet and PhoneHerald systems, but the company decided to discontinue the products when its hardware manufacturer backed out of the business. Parliant is turning its efforts to iPhone-based teleconference systems and app development.

But AltiGen’s Plumer believes this time is different. Microsoft, Cisco, and Avaya are each offering iOS apps to facilitate PBX systems, he noted—a departure from the expensive, hardware-based models of the past. “The largest providers of PBX technology in the world are providing it as an application on the iOS device,” he said. “There’s huge implications for upfront costs, maintenance, sales.”

Still, for all the talk of the future and business advantages, the rise of Apple-based PBX systems may rest on the simple popularity of their products.

“Anything and everything I can stick on a Mac, I do,” Albert said. “This is just one more thing.”

Writer Joel Mathis is based in Philadelphia. He did the phone interviews for this story using Skype's VoIP service on his Mac.

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