"Mobile PBX is the future – and the era of everyone having corporate desktop handsets is coming to a close" – Ivar Plahte, winner of smartphone-biz.news’ Person of the Year Award 2008

Cast your eyes over most office desks and something they have in common is a fixed-line telephone – at least for now.

Ivar Plahte, CEO and co-founder of OnRelay, has no doubt that mobile PBX is the future – with smartphones increasingly replacing desktop phones to become the sole business phone.

But then someone who runs a unified communications software company firmly focused on cellular Fixed Mobile Convergence (FMC) might be expected to say that.

Founded in early 2000, OnRelay is a pioneer of mobile PBX and launched the first global private mobile branch exchange.

In January, the company launched Unified MBX, a solution that delivers complete IP PBX functionality to the mobile phone.

Essentially it turns users’ smartphones into full desk phone replacements, supports PBX functions such as caller ID and calling name and offers business vs personal call separation.

Ivar Plahte, CEO  and Co-founder OnRelay

Plahte told smartphone-biz.news that interest had already been huge – with inquiries from 100,000-employee enterprises right down to very small businesses.

"It’s very cool in the sense that Unified MBX can be deployed in a plug-and-play manner," he said.

Shift from IP PBX to mobile PBX

While it may not yet be apparent, Plahte said there were "dramatic changes" currently taking place as enterprises shifted from IP PBXs to mobile PBXs.

To underline that this isn’t some future-case scenario, he said OnRelay had just finalised an agreement with one of the top five global telecom service providers.

The company was also deploying its solution in what he described as a "very large enterprise".

"They said explicitly they do not want a single deskphone – they only want smartphones," he said.

"This gives a very strong indication that this market we have been pushing for is really emerging."

Mobile PBX is Fourth Generation

Plahte said the best way to think of mobile PBX was in generations, with the progression from analog PBX to digital PBX and then on to the IP PBX.

"Looking at the previous change between digital and IP, the desk phone was very similar – it was still a proprietary type of desk phone," he said.

"We are talking about two very similar systems, both vertically integrated, coming from the same vendor, hardware-based models.

"Even if the technology is different, the markets are quite similar."

That isn’t the case with the move from IP PBX to mobile PBX, according to Plahte.

The CEO said this was especially apparent in the back office with the change from hardware to software platforms.

He said that while companies might still want to have fixed phones – such as for call centre switchboards – most users would have mobiles as their desktop phones.

"A PBX where the backdrop is software, the network is the public mobile network and the predominant device is the mobile phone," he said.

What has made this type of scenario possible are factors such as the improvements made to smartphone reliability in the last couple of years and the fall in mobile call prices.

Even so, Plahte said the only way to convince companies to ditch deskphones was to demonstrate the reliability of the solution to them.

He said businesses already made a sizeable proportion of their calls on mobiles – the novelty was that a mobile PBX meant the handsets could become the only mode of business communication.

While OnRelay is very aggressively anti-deskphone, Plahte said it was important to assure customers they can "mix-and-match" in whatever way they like.

"If they only want to use a mobile, then that’s fine," he said.

"If they are a little sceptical – perhaps because of coverage – then they can have a deskphone that pairs with a mobile and rings at the same time."

Not making this clear was where a lot of fixed/mobile substitution has been misdirected, according to Plahte.

"They were telling companies: ‘You have to throw out every everything and only have mobile phones’," he said. "Our proposition is more balanced."

Competitors Lagging Behind

While competitors in the form of PBX vendors have been threatening to copy OnRelay since 2003, Plahte said he was confident they had a significant lead over them.

He said OnRelay also differed from the largely voice-over-WiFi technology being touted by competitors.

After initially offering large enterprises managed MBX projects, the UK-headquartered company has now launched Unified MBX.

While OnRelay’s main markets are in Europe and the Far East it is also targeting the US.

Plahte said the US market was different in terms of:

– the network: "2/3 years behind Europe in quality of coverage but catching up"

– smartphone brands: "RIM’s Blackberry and Apple’s iPhone strong, while Nokia is very small in the US

– contracts: "In Europe a lot of companies pay for their employees’ contracts. That is getting there now in the US."

– Europe more aggressive in getting rid of deskphone completely: "In the US, the combination of mobile and deskphone will linger for longer."

OS Diversity is "Disappointing"

Plahte said the diversity of operating systems on smartphones has been a major headache.

OnRelay has to port a significant amount of software for every platform and user experience is very important.

"I hoped operating systems would converge but they are doing the opposite," he said. "For us, that’s disappointing."

While having to work across four or five platforms has slowed development, Plahte said he never doubted the solution would be launched.
"I have always had the firm belief that this market is inevitable," he said.

"It is just a question of time in relation to when this generation of PBX will happen."

We are interested in hearing your views on mobile PBX – can you see your enterprise becoming mobile-only?

Subscribe to our Newsletter