Sci-tech: Waging ware wars

Wael Elazab
6 Min Read

As the president of Digium, and creator of Asterisk, while on a crusade through Egypt, Mark Spencer talks to the Daily Star about his next steps, taking the tram, and his Egyptian lineage.

What Spencer, an Egyptian-American, is most keen to talk about right off the bat is the free software application he created several years ago that enables phone calls via the Internet. Lest you dismiss him at that, the application became credible and popular, and has made him a multi-millionaire.

Your local telephone operator currently uses a private branch exchange (or PBX in telecom jargon) that comprises of lots of hardware, and locks you into services from one provider. This is the traditional system that your office might run, where the receptionist can direct all the calls, internal or external, that you need to make.

And this can be done with Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, on a desktop computer, which numerous small and medium-sized enterprises are already moving to in large part because of the long-distance cost savings.

At 21, while a student at Aubern University, Spencer needed a phone system for his business, “I wanted people to leave messages and have them automatically go to the right person – a very difficult thing to do back in ’99, says Spencer. But a traditional office PBX system would have set him back thousands of dollars, so Spencer began work on Asterisk.

The main thing you may wonder is the free aspect. Well, for starters, Asterisk is built on an open source model, meaning software that allows anyone to use it, change it, or just look at how it is programmed. The main program is free for use and adjustment, but his company Digium produces a solidly tested and controlled enterprise version for a fee that includes technical support.

Spencer facilitated a community of developers, all working on Asterisk. “It frees customers from being locked in to a specific vendor, architecture, protocol, or even upgrade path, so the real winner is the customer. This is perhaps even more important in Egypt, where getting locked in to a proprietary system can mean having to stick with that supplier even if costs skyrocket or service starts to slump. Open source gives you a survivability that is really unmatched, he says.

This would mean being able to side-step the tremendous investment needed for a traditional PBX. We’re not quite suggesting that your local telephone exchange can be replaced by a single PC – but your business phone system could.

Spencer doesn’t stop there, and talks of his work as being a launch pad for the whole community, “One of the things that’s very important to me is that when you develop a technology – a platform on which people can develop new applications and come up with new creative ideas – it’s important to me to actually see people doing real innovation and producing new kinds of products that didn’t exist before, Spencer says. “It strikes me that there is a lot of opportunity for companies in Egypt around open source – because open source lets companies take the technology and localise it either to a particular geographic area or to a particular market.

During his stay in Egypt, Spencer will also be in Alexandria, where his mother is a native. He reminisces, “ever since I can remember we used to come every summer to Alexandria. I learnt a little conversational Arabic, and it surprises people that I talk a little ‘baladi’ (street) rather than like having had formalized lessons.

Not only in terms of business but socially too, he sees meeting people as a way of life in Egypt and something to make the most of. “People here tend to network much more easily than in the States. It’s like the whole concept of personal space doesn’t exist here in the way that it does there. And people are much more apt to talk to the person sitting across from them in the tram . about any topic that happens to be in their head at that particular moment.

Upon asking him why he might still be single, he says that it’s not for lack of trying on the part of his extended family, but that “Digium is a significant consumer of my time, claiming that there wouldn’t be anyone patient enough for him at the moment. Though come the New Year, “I’m hoping to spend time with my friends, but there is so much for me to do at Digium – we are definitely working on getting the right management in place to free me up to do more of the travelling, the visiting customers and more.

Spencer has written many applications beyond Asterisk, including an instant-messaging client called Gaim, and looks to the future bringing, “New applications, things that just didn’t exist before . I’m interested in seeing how those are going to come along to take telecom far beyond what it exists as today, he says.

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