In case you weren’t aware, I am a VoIP nutcase.  I have an Asterisk phone system at home, and all the phones in the house are VoIP of some description (either real VoIP devices or analogue handsets through an ATA).  While I haven’t converted to VoIP as a replacement for PSTN, I have some connectivity to VoIP providers both here and overseas (and soon to be more, to help the phone-home situation while I’m overseas).

I’ve been a user of Cisco IP phones, buying 7960s and a couple of 7970s through a well-known internet site (maybe it starts with an “e”, not sure).  The phones have been excellent, and I’ve even written a few XML apps to supplement their use here.  The 7960s are getting a bit dated now, however, and I found myself contemplating buying 7971s (or even something newer, like the 7965 or 7975).  Before I committed myself further into the relationship with Cisco, though, I thought about what I was really getting out of using Cisco phones.

Like many users of second-hand Cisco gear, I only purchased the hardware.  I do occasionally succumb to a nagging feeling of being an “outlaw” (at least in the eyes of Cisco), but admittedly that feeling usually only comes when I find out that Cisco has released another new version of SIP software that I can’t get because I haven’t paid for SmartNet.  The last time I had this thought though, I had a realisation: even if I did pay for SmartNet, the only thing I’d get would be the firmware: Cisco will only support their phone software when connected to their CallManager server (yes, even the SIP firmware).  Anyone running Cisco phones against anything other than CUCM gets no support from Cisco in the event something doesn’t work–and based on the information floating around, the problems are many.

So basically I would be paying Cisco to allow me to run one of the worst SIP implementations in embedded existence, with no opportunity to report problems with it in my environment.  Hmm, let me think about that for a minute…

At around the same time, I happened across the NerdVittles site, and in particular the post where NerdUno nominated the Aastra 57i as the “World’s Best Asterisk Phone“.  I started to do some research into it, and was astounded at the level of support the manufacturer (a Canadian company which a few years ago acquired the telephony business of a little mob called Nortel) and the community provide for this phone and Asterisk.  Looking through the phone manual, I found functions that only work with Asterisk! I found a full set of integration scripts that provide XML applications, right through to automatic provisioning tools.  Possibly the best thing was that on the product page for their phones — right there on the page that descibes the product — are links to current versions of firmware, documentation, XML application development guides, even a Linux-based application to encrypt the phone configuration files.  Not hidden in some obscure hard-to-find portal, or behind a registration-only support site.

I started to think of the possibilities…  I’d be able to freely modify the phone configuration (even via a HTTP interface if I so chose), without having to make trial-and-error changes to a cryptic and totally undocumented configuration file.  I’d be able to write XML apps without having to do laborious debugging to cater for why the parser was choking on XML that was perfectly okay according to the documentation but apparently tripped over an undocumented field length restriction or character encoding limitation.  I could get access to things like Visual Voicemail, BLF, integration with Asterisk functions like day/night mode and call parking.  I could keep the phones up-to-date for new functions and bug fixes.  With a click of a mouse I could get proper Australian tones!

So, I decided to give one a try.  Finding nothing on that “e” site I went looking for a vendor locally, and found several places that would sell one to me (legitimate e-tailers, no less!  Zounds!  A VoIP phone with a warranty?  You jest!).  It took a while for my chosen vendor to source it for me, but I’ve had it now for a couple of weeks.  It’s probably going to take a while for it to live up to it’s full potential in my installation, but since that potential is so much greater than what I have been able to do with the Ciscos I think I’m already ahead.

More in the coming weeks as the Aastra settles in.