A show, buzzwords, and swell gadgets

In the past, most banks, especially large ones, had two wiring systems: one for phones and one for computers. They were separate down to the wiring closets and support organizations. Often, integration meant a phone and a computer on each desk, with a human as the bridge.

Then came computer-telephony integration (CTI). Today, banks and other companies, especially large ones, need to combine their phone and computer systems. Small companies also have a great interest in CTI.

This interest manifested itself in March at the well-attended Computer Telephony Expo '96, here in Los Angeles, California. The show's very existence raised a couple of important questions for us PC-users, especially novices to the telephony, or "dial-tone," world. The first question is how to pronounce "telephony.'' The answer is Ta-LEFF-o-ney, not Tell-a-FONE-y (a synonym for "infomercial actor'').

The second question is why anyone cares about merging telephones and computers. The answer is that users can do more work if you connect computers to telephones. The telephony system tracks who called, why they called, and whom they talked to, so the person taking calls spends less time on the phone.

The most familiar telephony application is screen pops, CTI parlance for a popup window that tells you who's calling and why. You can get this capability at home, and it's very affordable: For under $200, you can buy a device that reads the Caller-ID information and sends it to your PC's serial port. When a call comes in, a resident program (which, in businesses, is often linked to a database such as ACT!) pulls up the appropriate record.

In a small business, this capability can be a great aid to customer service. And for large corporations, big-ticket computer-to-phone links are saving lots of customer-service dollars. Because of this potential to save companies money, telephony solutions are quickly becoming affordable, and many run on Windows NT.

Faxing: Telephony's Start
Faxing from and to a computer is probably the best known and oldest use of CTI. People have been doing it since the invention of fax modems, certainly before CTI became a buzzword.

Many fax solution vendors attended the CTI show. (For a roundup of NT-based faxing products, see "The Fax of Life," Windows NT Magazine, February 1996). All fax products do one thing well: send faxes from your computer. Good fax solutions even decide that a fax from your Altoona branch to Walla Walla needs to hop on the WAN, so your Seattle branch can send it at the lowest transmission cost. Better products do inbound routing: receive a fax, send an email to the recipient, and print the fax to the user's local printer. Programs use the number dialed to get routing information; some even read the fax to determine who gets it. The best products also let you collect faxes, hook them to other work, and integrate them with the rest of your electronic documents.

More complex fax solutions are starting to show up, too. Cardiff Software showed off its Teleform for Windows handwriting-recognition software, which works even on low-resolution (coarse-mode) faxes. The vendor's example was a faxed time sheet, with fill-in boxes for the employee's name, time worked, and comments. Naturally, the software has to guess sometimes, so it allows manual double-checking of doubtful entries. This software is not a system hog--the demo used a 486--and, yes, it runs on NT. The basic version is under $600 and you can use it straight out of the box.

Voice Mail
Voice mail is another "old" CTI application. Heck, voice mail requires a computer: You need to reliably store hundreds of megabytes of digitized voice messages with random access, meaning storage on hard disk. Also, you need some administrative functions, which means some sort of CPU.

Today's voice mail for small offices is a computer: Usually, it's a PC that sits in the phone closet. Because people access this PC only by phone, they don't know it's the same hardware as the machine on their desk. The voice mail system can also provide automated attendant functions, such as "Press one to connect to sales; two to speak to customer service." Most people think automated attendant features are part of voice mail, though these are separate functions on the same PC, bolted on to the phone system.

Many people curse voice mail. Often, a less-than-experienced installer programs the system badly, nobody in the office understands it, and it's poorly documented. Such systems drop calls and point people to the wrong mailbox. These systems inspire my rule of computer telephony: If you don't know what you're getting, deal with someone who does. Although you can do some business without your computers, you can't live without your phones. I've talked about how expensive cheap computers can be; this wisdom applies doubly to anything involving phones and computers.

Fortunately, help is out there. Computer-controlled and -managed voice mail solutions were abundant at the CTI expo. The day when one NT program can manage your system logins, disk allocation, and voice mail is coming--soon. Microsoft is providing the framework in NT, and software companies are starting to code.

NT and CTI: A Marriage Made in Redmond
Connecting computers to telephones is old ground for Microsoft. The people in Redmond have long integrated Microsoft telephone systems and computer networks. Microsoft and hardware vendors are now working on ways for a computer to perform such functions as commanding the switch to transfer a call from one extension to another.

APIs form the foundation for such solutions that let networks talk to switches. Novell provided the earliest network-to-computer connection standard, Telephone Services API (TSAPI). To compete, Microsoft introduced the Telephony API (TAPI).

The first version of TAPI provided only "first-party call control": You were able to mind only your own phone. For this reason, the $200 Caller-ID box between your phone and computer can process only local calls. Once the call moves away from your desk, TAPI 1.0 can't help you. Windows NT 3.51 has TAPI 1.0. TAPI 2.0 allows third-party call control, which provides almost complete telephone control from a computer. With the appropriate level of understanding between the switch and the PC, a TAPI 2.0 system can route and track calls as people transfer them all over the office. You will have to wait for NT 4.0 to get TAPI 2.0 support. (At the CTI show, Microsoft was pitching NT as "the operating system for computer telephony," and signs for TAPI compliance were everywhere.)

Products using TAPI 2.0 were abundant at CTI Expo '96. Even more abundant were developer's suites and demonstration setups. But what's for sale is better suited to consultants and others with a good feel for the zone between dial-tone and computer. Like the computer salesman who sold you dBase, saying, "This is everything you need to automate your business," the CTI salesman who points to Stylus's Visual Voice and says, "This will connect your phones to your computers,'' isn't telling the whole truth. Visual Voice is a fine product for building call-processing applications, but it's a toolbox, not something you can just put on your computer and use. You'd spend months using Visual Voice, Expert Systems' Ease, or the like to design and implement a major CTI project.

Today, CTI is about where desktop publishing was seven years ago (remember all those laser printed brochures you got with typos and too many fonts?). Sure, CTI tools are available, and powerful, but it will be about a year until you can get off-the-shelf programs suitable to small businesses, and they will run very soundly on NT.

A Quick Tour of Products
If you're new to CTI, check into Dialogic. This company makes a large percentage of the call-processing boards sold. These boards plug into a PC. (Call-processing cards digitize calls, play back recorded messages, connect calls, send and respond to touch-tone dialing, etc.) At the CTI Expo, Dialogic shared a pavilion with many third-party developers, who develop kits to program those cards. Previously, all these kits were based on DOS or OS/2, but nearly everyone was showing off a Windows suite. Of those vendors, most were planning to make NT a primary environment.

Computer telephony means video telephony, too, and Corel rolled out its Corel Video conferencing system. It's a clever hack that uses a spare twisted pair off Ethernet cabling to move analog video data to a desktop PC. The system is for medium-sized offices that want internal video conferences, and you can get a digital bridge to connect to the outside world. Corel Video is Windows based, and Corel assures me it runs on NT.

Lessons Learned
Businesses small and large can profit from using computer telephony. But you'll probably need help to make a solution more complex than one phone, one computer. Make sure you figure out what you want to do in connecting your phones to your PCs, and write specific requirements. Try a pilot. If you hire a consultant, know what you want before you sign a contract. And remember that your customers may understand when you tell them, "the computer's down,'' but almost no one accepts "the telephone's being debugged."

Next Time
Next month, I'll report on the future of the PC, as seen at WinHEC, the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, and NetWorld+Interop. Perhaps I'll sneak in some spiffy NT-based video-editing announcements from the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), too.

Contact Info
Teleform for Windows, fax OCR
Cardiff Software * 619-931-4500
Web: http://www.cardiffsw.com
Corel Video
Corel * 613-728-0826
Web: http://www.corel.com
Voice-processing boards, ISDN products, CTI toolkits
Dialogic * 201-993-3000
Web: http://www.dialogic.com
Ease 32-bit CTI application suite
Expert Systems * 770-642-7575
Telephone switches and products
Northern Telecom * 214-684-1000
Web: http://www.nt.com
Visual Voice
Stylus * 617-621-9545
Web: http://www.stylus.com