Meet Mr. Asterisk

Adam Turner meets Mark Spencer, founder of the Asterisk open source telephony server and learns about his awesome Sudoku skill and the future of the application he created.

The man behind the open source Asterisk VoIP platform, Mark Spencer is a natural tinker. He's a fan of Sudoku puzzles, so he wrote an application for solving them during his recent flight to Australia. Not during his trip, but actually on the plane.

"On the flight from Dallas to L.A. I got the program to the point where it could solve the easy Sudoku puzzles, then I had it solving intermediate ones by the time I got from L.A. to Australia," says Spencer.

"After I got to Australia I kept going until I had it solving the really diabolical ones. In fact just before you called, I converted it to an Asterisk application so that I can use the phone and enter in all the squares that are known and it will read back to me the completed puzzle."

Such nerdiness brings your everyday geek to his knees, chanting "we are not worthy" - but that level of passion is what drives Spencer to turn ideas into reality.

Spencer founded Linux Support Services in 1999 while still a Computer Engineering student at university. When faced with the high cost of buying a PBX for his company, he simply used his Linux computer and knowledge of C code to write his own - and Asterisk was born.

Today Spencer is the chairman and chief technical officer of Alabama-based open source developer Digium and has led the creation of several Linux-based open source applications, most notably Asterisk and the Gaim Instant Messenger. He was recently named by Network World as one of the 50 Most Powerful People in Networking, next to Cisco's John Chambers, Microsoft's Bill Gates and Oracle's Larry Ellison. Spencer was also recognized in's "30 Under 30: America's Coolest Young Entrepreneurs".

"Writing that Sudoku app is kind of the mentality that leads to a big idea, and then the rest of it is sort of recognising at some point that it's gone beyond just being a kind of a nerdy project and it has turned into a real business opportunity and then refocusing around that. Now I don't think necessarily that this Sudoku solver is likely to be a big revenue generator for Digium, but it's nice sometimes to get back to the roots," Spencer says.

"As for Asterisk, I think it's clearly making pretty substantial headway today in the business market place. At Digium, in conjunction with our Australian distributor Australian Technology Partnerships, we provided some more appliance-like solutions so that a business that's not really Linux or Asterisk knowledgeable can still deploy the technology with greater ease."

Concern about a lack of support availability is one factor deterring some organisations from trialling open source software such as Asterisk.

Spencer doesn't see support as a major shortcoming of Asterisk, and says its a matter of building awareness of the resources that exist.

"There are multiple levels of support available for people interested in running Asterisk, its really just a matter of getting people to call to find out what are the best avenues for them," Spencer says.

"In fact open source generally helps level the playing fields for people who want to be able to provide support because everyone who wants to provide support for Asterisk has all the access to the same intellectual property. This means that when we want to differentiate our services, we have to do it through the quality of our services - not by with holding information."

As for the future of VoIP and Asterisk, Spencer says it lies with video.

"Asterisk today supports video voicemail and we hope in the future to support more video conferencing related applications. It takes video from just being a point to point call into a richer set of services just like a PBX takes a phone from being just a regular phone call to being a richer set of services," he says.

"I think there are some core issues that still exist with video in terms of the fact people often talk on the phone when they are in a situation that they wouldn't necessarily want to be seen. You might be sitting in your pyjamas, and there is no technology that's going to change that."


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