Meet Paul Liew: Communications Innovator

He was unifying communications before anyone had coined the phrase Unified Communications! Adam Turner meets Paul Liew of Australian Technology Partnerships.

Today he's an open source VoIP specialist, but software developer Paul Liew was a communications innovator back when paging was the Next Big Thing.

Born in Malaysia, Liew studied electrical engineering in the UK before moving to Australia to complete a Masters in Computer Science at Melbourne's Monash University. From there he began working with Australia's fledging data paging networks during the first stages of the country's telecommunications deregulation in the 1980s.

Working for Instapage and later Southern Communications, Liew wrote applications for local area paging networks deployed hospitals, factories and oil rigs - the early dabblings in what we'd today call unified communications.

"Australia and the UK were actually leaders in the field of paging because in Australia when the deregulation happened, it started with data paging," Liew says.

"The POCSAG standard, developed by the British Post Office, enabled paging messages to be sent digitally, using numbers and alpha numeric characters. In that sense the US was very behind Australia because they were still doing the tone paging plus the voice paging. Australia was a data paging pioneer."

From here Liew went on to integrate data paging into desktop applications. Working in DOS and Windows 3.1 environments, he designed systems that allowed receptionists to page staff directly from a PC. By the early 1990s he was working with Australian Technology Partnerships on Interactive Voice Response systems, allowing businesses to reduce call handling cost using automated menus.

It was around this time that Linus Torvalds unleashed Linux on the world, and Liew was quick to see its potential. As the brave new world of open source took shape, Australian Technology Partnerships dreamed of integrating it with old world telephony systems.

"My thoughts on open source is that you are going the best from people around the world, people have a keen interest to build or contribute to this community without financial reward. There is no motivating factor apart from the fact they love to do it, and that is always going to get you the best code," Liew says.

"Initially at ATP we were using Linux internally for file servers, mail servers and web servers. We used whatever tools we could find and whatever we couldn't find we supplemented with our own development in house to make it do what we wanted to. It was a natural progression to move to Linux because we were very strongly a Unix based house."

Australian Technology Partnerships was already working towards an open source telephony system when it came across Mark Spencer's Asterisk project in the early 1990s.

"With systems like IVR we had all this voice data coming off a telephony interface into the computer. At this point it was basically just bits and bytes and we knew we could do a lot more than just moving data coming in and sending it out again," Liew says.

"We were trying to get it working on a Linux-based platform but that took a lot of development in terms of porting which I was prepared to do and was doing in whatever spare time I had. When Asterisk came along it was like "Yes, that exactly what I was talking about!" We knew it could be done, but it took Mark Spencer to turn the idea into reality."

"We were very excited about what it could do because all of the other systems were very proprietary and very dedicated in terms of API. The Asterisk project seemed to be able to easily bring data from telephony standards into a PC architecture using the open source model. We were quite active in the early days helping with Asterisk code contribution and testing and some of my code is in there."

Australian Technology Partnerships soon cemented its relationship with Mark Spencer's company, Digium, becoming the Australia distributor for Digium hardware and now the Asterisk appliances.

"I've always tended to be on the cutting edge when it comes to communications technologies, so open source and Asterisk seems like the perfect place for me. Asterisk has a big future and I'm keen to be a part of it."


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