Most businesses today are feeling tremendous pressure to reduce expenses and increase productivity using fewer employees. Although the transition from mainframe power to faster desktop computers, better desktop tools, and higher-performance LANs and servers has increased productivity, the improvements are still not enough for some companies. Those companies needing to do even more with less might be able to take advantage of computer telephony (CT) technology. CT technology merges two disparate fields--computers and telephones--to provide communications solutions that improve not only corporate efficiency but also customer service.
Even if you have never heard of CT before, you can put its innovation to good use in your organization once you understand the benefits of its use. But first, you need to know the trends shaping the future of CT.
Trends Driving Innovations
Although CT systems were first primarily used for voice mail and dial-up games (telephone horoscopes being among them), companies are now using them for more sophisticated applications. Several key trends are driving the creative forces behind CT product development.
One important trend is the paradigm shift in how businesses think of and treat voice, fax, and other media. In the past, businesses associated voice messages with voice phone calls. Now, with a variety of transmission technologies available, businesses treat message media just like any other data stream. This simple shift in perception enables companies to do much more with existing resources. For example, they are now sending voice, fax, and video from one corporate location to another in realtime over the Internet or via Frame Relay or ATM virtual private networks. Internal corporate ATM backbones can serve double duty by moving both LAN data and voice, fax, and video transmissions, thereby potentially eliminating the need for separate telephone wiring.
The Internet offers great savings when compared with Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN)-routed connections. You can save by using fax gateways, which let you send faxes between locations with virtually no transport costs, and voice gateways, which let you make free phone calls. You can even hold videoconferences across the Internet at low cost. All you need are the tools to make it happen.
Another influential trend is the business environment. Competition is driving corporations to provide an increased level of customer service while reducing corporate costs. This is an area in which CT shines. Many CT solutions, such as interactive voice response (IVR) systems and call center technology, simultaneously satisfy both needs.
Trends in the computer industry are also influencing CT product development. For example, Windows NT will likely displace Novell NetWare in yearly network server sales by the year 2000, so CT vendors are making major-league bets on NT's future. In fact, NT has helped ignite the CT explosion. Using NT as the core platform, standards-based CT servers are steadily gaining momentum as key organizational communications tools.
The push toward open, expandable solutions is another computer industry trend affecting CT. Proprietary, closed, limited-function solutions are no longer accepTable. Instead, open CT server platforms and products that easily expand to support multiple media message types and automation functions are becoming the norm.
The shift in the media-transport perception, the current business environment, and computer industry trends are already shaping the CT products being designed. In addition to unified messaging systems, major innovations are happening with fax servers, IVR systems, Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) software, PBX-enabled CT servers, and IP telephony products.
Save Time with Unified Messaging Systems
Nonrealtime communication is a critical activity that demands a great deal of time from people's busy schedules. It's not uncommon to spend at least a quarter of a day sorting through and responding to mail. As a result, companies are constantly looking for ways to make communication more efficient. Saving the average employee just 15 minutes a day can result in noticeable improvements in productivity.
Unified messaging systems based on NT can help employees save time. These systems provide universal mailboxes that support voicemail, fax, and email; they will soon support video as well. (For detailed coverage of unified and integrated messaging, see Chris Bajorek, "Unified Messaging," May 1997.) With the advent of NT and the popularity of Microsoft Exchange Server and Outlook, unified messaging is emerging as a strong growth segment in CT. (To see how one company used unified messaging with NT, see " Unified Messaging Success: Paralon Technologies .")
With unified messaging, you can enjoy universal access to your messages at the office, on the road, and at home. Using Outlook's GUI, you can scan your inbox messages and read only the most important ones, quickly filing the others away for later review. Using a telephone user interface (TUI--an interface that lets you use a touch-tone phone to control a CT application), you can listen to your email and even many of your fax messages from any telephone.
A single user directory streamlines systems administration tasks. It cuts in half the time spent configuring, supporting, and maintaining separate voice, fax, and email directories.
In addition, the unified messaging system lets you choose the medium you want to use to respond to any message. Herein lies an important key to the promised productivity enhancements. Responding with a voice message might take you only a few minutes, whereas a typed reply could take 15 minutes or more.
Although this technology's tangible benefits are impressive, it has an intangible benefit as well: A messaging awareness mindset develops when unified messaging enters your daily life. You handle messages more quickly and intuitively; you are more in control.
Several new developments are on the horizon for unified messaging. Automatic speech recognition (ASR) will slowly become an alternative to TUI. Continuing advances in ASR technology with gradual reductions in per-line pricing will probably lower the price of ASR add-ons.
Unified messaging systems will most likely be more reliable in the future. As unified messaging systems assume greater responsibilities in handling all message media and related tasks, messaging servers will attain mission-critical status. Passive-backplane platforms with many slots, enhanced cooling, hot-swappable power supplies, and RAID setups will be the norm rather than the exception.
Using video as a communications tool will also become the norm rather than the exception. As videoconferencing and video servers make their way into businesses, the demand will grow for supporting video as another message type. Unified messaging vendors, however, will still need to contend with video's 2MB-per-minute storage requirements.
Although vendors will have limitations when using video, the sky's the limit when it comes to making other enhancements. For example, more vendors will likely release true, single-store, unified messaging products, most of which will be based on Exchange Server. In addition, a growing number of vendors will probably offer Web-browser front ends, allowing your unified messaging GUI to run on any browser-enabled workstation, anywhere in the world. These front ends will use the Internet to tie disparate messaging systems together via the Voice Profile for Internet Mail standard. (For more information on this standard and other CT terms, see "Computer Telephony Terms and Technologies," page 118.)
Fax as a Core Technology
Although fax is a mature communications technology, it remains a ubiquitous standard for moving documents and information. It is also a strategically important messaging medium that corporations are integrating into their computing environments.
Fax servers let a company use a corporate LAN and standard desktop interface to centralize the faxing hardware and phone lines. Although the fax server started as a standalone application, it is a communications anchor when integrated with messaging, transaction processing, and workflow applications, as Figure 1 shows.
NT is a well-suited platform for fax. You can add NT fax systems to an NT server to provide a fax solution that peacefully coexists with other server-based processes. Fax servers also scale gracefully, centralizing the ability to respond to increased user demand. For example, both Biscom's NT Enterprise fax server and RightFAX's RightFAX NT 5.0 can serve two or 2,000 users by adding more fax cards to the server as demand increases--you do not need to deploy additional fax machines. Both of these products can load-balance across multiple fax servers, adding another dimension to scalability and redundancy. One fax-server farm can support 96 or more faxing ports. (For more products that can perform faxing and other applications, see the "Computer Telephony Buyer's Guide".)
NT's security protocols let administrators ensure personal fax inbox security. Administrators also benefit from NT's intuitive GUI standards; you can administer and monitor a typical NT-based fax server from any LAN workstation.
Many fax applications are possible when you use a fax server. One such application is fax mail. Sending and receiving personal fax mail is possible when the server is integrated with messaging front ends such as Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, Lotus cc:Mail and Notes, and Novell's GroupWise. These front ends feature Direct Inward Dialing (DID) phone-line support at the fax server. DID directs incoming faxes to personal inboxes, increasing security and eliminating the manual routing of faxes.
With this level of integration, messaging front ends let you simultaneously send messages to both email addresses (internal and Internet) and fax numbers. To do this, you simply type the text and specify a file attachment (e.g., a Word document file). Then the messaging client, email server, and fax server send the message text and file either as a native fax or as text with a file attachment. You do not need to decide how (i.e., what medium to use) to send the message to each recipient or prepare the text in two different formats.
Another application available for a fax server is fax-on-demand. FOD systems let you request one or more fax documents by calling into a system using a touch-tone phone to request those documents. IRS tax forms and company product and pricing information are but a few examples of the types of documents you typically receive by FOD.
A related application is fax broadcast. A popular alternative to mailing, fax broadcast is commonly used for newsletter and other periodic announcements. Although service bureaus handle a significant amount of this broadcast traffic, fax servers usually offer convenient fax broadcast features.
Because fax servers are versatile, easy to administer, scalable, and a timesaver for users, it is no surprise that the market is rapidly growing at a rate of 20 percent annually. In 1997 alone, vendors expect to ship more than 200,000 fax servers.
Automate Phones with IVR
You can use IVR systems to automate all or portions of phone transactions. Companies commonly use these systems in such applications as ordering, support, or answering product or service questions.
In the simplest IVR systems, a single menu routes the caller to the right group of employees in an organization. This menu uses such directions as: "For help with your Super Widget, press 1. For help with your Software Shredder, press 2..." Such basic front ends eliminate the need for callers to speak to a live operator before being routed to the right employee or department.
More sophisticated IVR automation can guide callers through a series of question-and-answer menus to meet many or all of their needs. Sophisticated systems can feature skills-based routing, which directs callers to those representatives who are best qualified to meet their needs. Routing is accomplished through caller ID information and callers' touch-tone answers to questions about their needs.
An impressive array of benefits is compelling many corporations to use IVR solutions. Companies can experience shorter call times because callers can get answers to commonly asked questions before being connected to a live person. (Although vendors do not state so publicly, IVR deployment can result in workforce reductions and improved bottom lines. Companies generally avoid such statements to avoid negative publicity.)
Companies can also increase their customer satisfaction levels because callers are connected to the right person faster (even if that person is off site) and get their needs met faster. Some IVR menus even let callers select their language of choice, offering better service to callers who speak different languages.
Finally, using Dialed-Number-Identification-Service (DNIS) or DID information from incoming calls, one IVR platform can provide multiple services. For example, using the same platform and phone lines, a business can offer order-by-phone and technical-support services, thereby reducing costs while improving customer service.
IVR systems are quite at home in corporate LAN and NT server environments. Because the heart of any IVR system is the database, the database is usually "live" and located in a database management system (DBMS) server or a set of files on the corporate LAN server. You can use NT to deliver near-universal database connectivity with Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) protocols. Microsoft SQL Server is widely used as the database server engine. The NTFS file system provides a robust foundation for ensuring solid file-access performance and less downtime.
NT-based IVR, properly designed, is inherently scalable, allowing such solutions to seamlessly migrate to multiple systems. NT's clustering technology (Wolfpack) will enable IVR solutions that achieve true hot-standby status. (For more information on how to ensure a successful solution, see "7 Tips to Deploy a Successful IVR System,". For more information on clustering, see Mark Smith, "Clusters for Everyone," June 1997.)
Call Center and Workgroup Solutions
The concept of call centers started many years ago as a simple one: Put lots of people in a big room, give them phones, and have them answer incoming calls or place calls from a predefined list of numbers. Now, call centers are highly sophisticated operations that rely on computers, networking, and CT technology.
Call centers are usually quite large, requiring hundreds of employees, expensive ACDs (or ACD loads on PBX systems), and host computer systems. The ACD queues incoming calls, asks callers to answer a few questions via touch-tone phone, and then prompts them to wait for the next available representative as recorded music or information plays in the background.
Computer telephony integration (CTI) enables a wealth of call-handling features that can improve any call center's performance. Some features are designed to help company representatives operate more efficiently. These include screen pops (which put the caller's record on the representative's screen before the call is connected), call blending (which mixes outgoing calls with ordinary incoming call traffic to keep representatives busy when incoming calls are slow), and call control (enables representatives to transfer callers with a quick click of a mouse rather than pushing telephone buttons). A predictive dialer feature can even predict the right flow of outgoing telemarketing calls so that when a person answers, a representative becomes available and can be immediately switched to that call.
Other features are designed to help callers either reach the right person (skills-based routing) or take care of callers' needs without their talking to a live person (IVR automation). But a customer doesn't even need to dial a phone to be helped. With Web-enabled connectivity, you can synchronize a call center with a customer's Web browser activities. When the customer clicks a button on the company's home page, it triggers a company representative to call that person. From there, the representative can see the same screen the customer is viewing or even control the screen that both are seeing.
Companies don't need large call centers to benefit from CTI. You can think of small organizational workgroups (such as a support group of 20 employees who want to improve their efficiency) as small call centers because they have many of the same needs as large call centers. Although most vendors have overlooked providing call center technology to small workgroups consisting of fewer than 100 people, a few have risen to the challenge. Vendors such as Applied Voice Technology (AgentXpressNT) and MaxQ Technologies (ComSense) offer NT-based solutions that provide workgroup-level support without giving up any functionality. (For more about how to use CTI technology in small workgroups, see the sidebars, "How to Build Your Own Call Center," and "Call Center and IVR Success: Number Nine Visual Technology.")
The PBX-Enabled CT Server Revolution
A revolution is brewing in the PBX marketplace. CT servers, sometimes referred to as "UnPBXs," are making their way into the business world. These devices will forever change the way you think about PBX phone systems.
Historically, companies have encountered difficulties when interfacing CT systems with PBX phone systems because PBX manufacturers have kept their products proprietary. To get a CT system to work in a PBX environment, CT vendors had to reverse engineer the native methods of integration that enabled the CT equipment to perform. PBX manufacturers maintained secrecy for as long as they could to ensure a captive market for their own CT solution add-ons. Their exclusivity drove up solution prices and inhibited new product innovation.
But CT vendors have started to fight back with a new product that integrates PBX features with voicemail, auto-attendant, ACD, IVR, and other CT functions. NT has been at the core of this new revolution. Although not every CT server uses NT, more than 80 percent are NT-based.
As Figure 2 shows, very good reasons exist for the high percentage of NT-based CT servers. First, NT's OS provides a true preemptive multitasking environment, which is necessary for writing responsive applications. Second, NT has a solid GUI framework that enables intuitive administration programs. NT has very good intrinsic support for IP connectivity and a solid security layer that provides a tight security envelope around critical-administration and sensitive-message data. Finally, NT offers database connectivity, letting it connect to corporate databases for seamless IVR and ACD functions.
But enterprises won't be throwing away their PBXs overnight, so the first use of CT servers will likely be to provide workgroups with ACD functionality. CT server vendors are keenly aware of this first shot and are making their packages strong in this area. As businesses become more confident that CT servers can reliably handle their telephone services, the trend will probably be for interconnect companies to offer CT servers as part of their standard line of communications products. As the next wave of CT servers hits the market with even easier installation processes, the computer distribution channel is expected to begin moving these products through LAN resellers.
Compared with installing and maintaining separate PBX and CT systems, using a CT server has several significant advantages. The CT server is easier to install because you have no PBX integration issues to deal with. Once you hook up the LAN, incoming lines, and station-set lines, the hard part is finished. Administering and maintaining the CT server is also easier because of the common interface for all resident functions. Ultimately, most companies will be able to maintain their CT servers, saving time and money.
Companies will also benefit from enhanced call handling and better performance. Packages such as AltiGen's AltiServ offer such features as Follow-Me, which forwards calls, and Boomerang, which lets you listen to a voice message, press a button, and initiate a callback to the person who left the message. Because the PBX features are intrinsic to the CT server architecture, ACD features work fast because the CT server's ACD software knows the state of each station line at all times and can instantly respond to incoming calls and changes in station-set status. Voicemail and auto-attendant features will also work faster because they don't need to contend with a slow or problematic link to the PBX.
The field of CT server products is dynamic, with new vendors popping up almost monthly. With the scramble to be recognized as one of the first to enter this new market, many vendors have announced products that are clearly not finished. Also, unlike the venerable PBX products that vendors are attempting to replace, the new products have standard and optional feature lists that vary considerably from vendor to vendor. So plan to spend time sorting out vendors and their products before you buy. (See "When Shopping for a CT Server," for buyer tips.)
The Merger of CT and the Internet
Just when you think you've grasped the idea of computers and telephones working together, the Internet joins the mix, changing the picture radically. Any CT integration plan must consider IP telephony, which includes both voice over IP (VoIP) and fax over IP (FoIP). IP telephony had two parents: the bypass business and VoIP.
In the bypass business, companies used permanent, dedicated T-1 (or larger) links between locations. Calls placed in one location were digitized, sent over the bypass link, and dialed closer (and cheaper) to the recipient. As corporate sophistication grew, so too did the need to run conventional data over existing wide-area links. Thus, wide-area links had to carry both voice and data simultaneously, a feat made possible by a technology called voice over data. This technology integrated voice traffic with data.
Voice over data, however, worked only between sites you controlled. You couldn't call someone with a computer connection directly, nor could you call a customer service center via the Web. In fact, the business world didn't give much thought to the idea of sending realtime data such as voice over the Internet. The mind-set was that phone calls run over circuits, the Internet is packet-based, and making the two work together would be difficult.
Meanwhile, consumers were buying computers with sound cards and microphones to call their friends over the Internet. The PC industry decided to meet their needs and developed such VoIP programs as NetSpeak's WebPhone. Calls made using these half duplex programs had dropouts and delays, but they were much cheaper than calls made using Ma Bell. Thus, VoIP became IP telephony's other parent and marked the beginning of the upcoming changes in the long-distance market.
VoIP is evolving faster than "traditional" CT. In 1996, VoIP was barely more than a dream. After the concept was proven both practical and consumer-friendly, enterprises began pilot implementations. Today, vendors are demonstrating voice-enabled customer-service Web sites, and some companies use VoIP for internal communications.
Not surprisingly, a standards body--the Internet Telephony Interoperability (ITI) Consortium, based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--has come into being. The consortium works on the entire Internet phone business, including everything from numbering and find-me issues to tariff structures (i.e., payment rates). Its members include many of the heavy hitters in the phone and computing industries.
VoIP is split into several product subcategories: computer-to-computer, computer-to-telephone, and phone system-oriented approaches. In addition, many CT-application software development tools support VoIP.
The best-known VoIP subcategory is consumer computer-to-computer. Being well known, however, doesn't mean VoIP is mature. Interoperability between products is still a big issue, as vendors slowly adopt H.323 and related standards. Quality has much improved over the early days, but this technology still suffers from lag and fadeout. Number assignment is another unresolved issue. Few Internet users have a permanently assigned IP address.
Meanwhile, computer-to-computer VoIP in companies is turning pro. For example, VocalTec's Surf&Call Web plugin lets companies put a "call customer service" button on a Web page. Once the button is pushed and the call reaches the customer-service call center, the customer uses onscreen or voice prompts to connect to a representative. The representative can then "push" pages on the customer's browser window. (If the customer makes separate phone and Web calls, the two must be linked before the representative can change the browser window. To link the two calls, the customer usually types a unique ID number from the Web page on the phone.) The Web plugin approach has no numbering issues. The receiver's IP address is static, so the Web plugin knows where to call.
Computer-to-telephone VoIP/FoIP solutions, such as Integrated Device Technology's (IDT) Net2Phone and Inter-Tel's Vocal'Net, are rapidly maturing into businesslike products. Net2Phone lets you place international calls online at low rates. Although the user software is free, charges usually appear on your regular phone bill, further blurring the line between phone and computer. Vocal'Net is a gateway that connects to your existing phone system. If a computer can place a call via the Internet, automatic route selection sends it through the gateway to the other end. More software-only NT products of this sort are likely to be released in the next year. These products occasionally suffer from dropouts and delays, but they still offer savings for long-distance callers.
Some companies aren't waiting for Internet specialists to mitigate dropout and delay problems in computer-to-telephone VoIP. VocalTec's Telephony Gateway (VTG) is a good example of an enterprise-level solution. It compensates for dropouts by sampling the surrounding voice and interpolating the missing bits. VTG also watches link characteristics (e.g., latency and total bandwidth) and adjusts performance. It supports multiple gateways and includes Windows-based network monitoring and management software. VTG can work from Web to phone and from Web to Web. With a network of outbound gateways, a company can even place phone-to-phone or fax-to-fax calls.
For corporate road warriors, an inbound application of VoIP is essential. You dial a local Internet service provider number from your laptop computer, log on to your corporate site, and then use all of the phone system features as if you were in the office. More sophisticated universal inbox programs will even download faxes, email, and voicemail using the same connection.
In the FoIP side of the CT-Internet merger, most approaches are essentially store-and-forward schemes. A fax goes to a local server location or directly into a unified-messaging universal inbox. From there, you can route it over the Internet as a file attachment to an email address or send it as a native fax from a remote fax gateway server.
Some FoIP solutions use least-cost routing (LCR) algorithms to transport faxes as far as they can go over the Internet to minimize line-access charges. For example, suppose you have a corporation with multiple locations throughout the United States. With an Internet-connected fax gateway server in each location, the originating server determines which gateway location to send the fax to that would incur the lowest phone toll charges when you place the call. Because a high percentage of most companies' long-distance telephone bills is attribuTable to fax, LCR fax systems can pay for themselves in considerably less than a year. NetXchange, RightFAX, Black Ice Software and other vendors have products that provide fax gateway functionality and various levels of LCR.
CT's Come a Long Way
CT technology has come a long way from its humble beginnings of phone horoscopes and similar games. It has now matured into a compelling set of solutions that can dramatically improve productivity and communication. With such tools as unified messaging systems, fax servers, PBX-enabled CT servers, IVR systems, and IP telephony products, companies can better meet the current and future needs of their customers.
NetXchange Communications * 408-248-6200
Email: email@example.com Black Ice Software * 603-673-1019
Web: http://blackice.sendfax.com AgentXpressNT
Contact: Applied Voice Technology (AVT) * 425-820-6000
Web: http://www.appliedvoice.com AltiServ
Contact: AltiGen Communications * 510-252-9712
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org ComSense
Contact: MaxQ Technologies * 716-389-1500
Email: email@example.com FAXCOM for NT
Contact: Biscom * 508-250-1800; 800-477-2472
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Net2Phone
Contact: Integrated Device Technology * 800-345-7015
Email: email@example.com RightFAX NT 5.0
Contact: RightFAX * 520-320-7000
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Vocal'Net
Contact: Inter-Tel * 602-961-9000
Email: email@example.com VocalTec Telephony Gateway
Contact: VocalTec Communications * 201-768-9400
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org WebPhone
Contact: NetSpeak * 561-997-4001