Computer telephony (CT) has come a long way since its early days (in the late 1970s), when disk storage was costly and processor power was available only in rack-mounted minicomputers. Back then, manufacturers of the first voicemail systems faced a formidable task building them because virtually no off-the-shelf hardware or software components were available. Those manufacturers had to create everything, including the underlying operating systems, from scratch. Telephony products were expensive, bulky, and not very feature-rich.
Today, the CT industry is flourishing. Industry analysts expect the total CT market to reach $7.9 billion by 1999. You can attribute part of this dramatic growth to new, widely acknowledged standards, widely available PC hardware components from industry leaders such as Dialogic, and an ever-growing list of vendors offering software and turnkey solutions.
So what is computer telephony? It is the technology that lets computer-based systems automatically answer, handle, and even make phone calls. Voicemail (that often-used time-saver that everyone loves and sometimes hates), auto attendant ("If you know the extension of the person you would like to reach, enter it now"), fax-on-demand ("faxback"), and LAN-based fax servers are among popular mainstream CT applications. But telephony doesn't stop there. Desktop control of your telephone calls is a reality with Microsoft's Telephony API (TAPI) for Windows NT and the availability of TAPI-enabled applications. And with Microsoft Exchange, you can manage your voice, fax, and email messages all from within one program--the Exchange client.
NT is a significant event on the CT industry landscape because NT provides a new, high-performance operating system standard for CT system design. Perhaps even more important, NT is rapidly gaining in worldwide enterprise popularity. Virtually every major CT manufacturer is now developing NT products that are fully compatible with NT LANs and related infrastructure.
With this article, I begin ongoing coverage of NT and CT. I hope to give you a window to what's happening in this dynamic industry segment, how it affects your business, and more important, how you can use the new CT technologies to improve your business communications. I define some common industry terms in "Computer Telephony Terms Defined," page 78.
Report from the CT Demo Fall '96 Show
The Computer Telephony Demo Fall '96 show in Orlando October 30 through November 2 was the sister to the main-event show for the CT industry--the Computer Telephony Conference and Expo--held annually in the spring. What made the Demo Fall show unusual was that each exhibiting firm had the same booth setup (and nicely done, I must say). The show was limited to 70 companies that the show promoters handpicked for the companies' interesting and cutting-edge products. Each exhibitor had 10 minutes of fame on stage for a live demonstration to the attendee audience.
The Importance of NT
NT is influencing the CT industry in a major way. Virtually every presenting firm at the show either had an NT-based product or had one in the works. At the show, I sat with industry veteran John Alfieri, vice president of Sales and Support at Dialogic, the industry's largest peripheral producer. I asked him for his NT views.
"In the customer premise and enterprise server segment of the computer telephony marketplace, my feeling, very strongly, is that it's going to be NT," he said. "I see Microsoft staying extremely focused on maintaining NT momentum. Dialogic believes in open standards, and NT is a great environment for open CT development. We are doing all we can to enable our customers' success on the NT platform."
Indeed, a good percentage of the manufacturers on the show floor are using Dialogic components in their NT-based products. Other leading component vendors such as Rhetorex and Natural Microsystems are singing the same tune, so NT is fully here in CT. Let me highlight some products from the show.
Enterprise Interaction Center
Enterprise Interaction Center (EIC) from Interactive Intelligence is an all-in-one, NT-based communications server that handles a variety of corporate communications functions. It provides universal inbox capability with support for voicemail, fax mail, and email. With Microsoft Exchange (which is rapidly becoming the standard unified messaging desktop front-end in enterprise environments), you manage all message types from your desktop; so no matter what type of message you receive, it shows up as a new message object in your Exchange Inbox.
What makes the communications server solution so compelling is that it provides corporate Private Branch eXchange (PBX) functionality at its core. Also, EIC offers voicemail, automated attendant, Automatic Call Distribution (ACD), and fax server functions in the same PC-based system. This facility means single-point management for all these corporate communications functions.
Figure 1 offers the conventional picture: Workstations connect to the corporate LAN, and each user has an individual phone extension. Conventional wisdom says you need a separate, optimized box for each communications subsystem such as the PBX, voicemail, and fax server systems. Each subsystem has its set of maintenance utilities, procedures, wiring, power requirements, and so on.
This communications server architecture, shown in Figure 2, not only simplifies maintenance and support but has an additional benefit of eliminating one of the thorniest problems CT manufacturers face: integration with a particular phone system, or PBX. The vast majority of voicemail and auto-attendant systems are installed behind the PBX, giving those systems the ability to freely transfer calls to any phone extension. The difficulty arises because the interface details for each PBX can be significantly different, and worse, a PBX vendor can consider its interface proprietary. And without tight PBX integration, CT call handling can be less than perfect.
A communications server such as EIC integrates with the phone system functions because it is the phone system: The CT functions work in harmony with your phones, making fast and reliable phone-call handling possible. With this high degree of phone control, you can program the system to provide efficient ACD functions because the system always knows when a workstation phone is idle or in use.
The EIC is one of the first single-box communications solutions to hit the market, but I do not expect it to be alone for long. I see this technology as a hot one that will become more popular in the near future.
Internet Xchange for FAX
For a long time, fax has enjoyed its position as a primary corporate communications vehicle for written materials. Although Internet email is threatening to put a dent in this medium, fax is far from dead. In fact, the fax marketplace is still growing at a healthy 35 percent a year. Ironically, the Internet, with the NT-based Internet Xchange for Fax product from NetXchange Communication, might pump even more life into fax. Here's how.
With more than 100 million fax machines worldwide, fax is literally everywhere. Because of this ubiquity, the average Fortune 500 company spends $15 million a year on fax, with half of that amount for intra-corporate purposes. The NetXchange team developed a product that lets corporations deploy an Internet-fax gateway box at every corporate location that initiates or sends significant fax traffic. You send faxes to your local Internet-fax gateway node, and it receives and saves the fax locally, figures out which remote corporate gateway node is closest to the destination fax number, and sends your fax as data packets on the Internet to the receiving node. Once the remote site receives the fax, Internet Xchange for Fax places a local phone call to the destination fax number, and delivers the fax.
If you have no per-minute charges on your Internet link, this process of sending faxes is 100 percent free of transport charges. This capability can spell huge savings for heavy corporate fax users.
Internet Xchange for Fax goes further to save you money on your fax delivery with another slick feature: The product lets you program phone rate information into the fax node boxes, so any Internet Xchange for Fax node can compute the least-cost route for a fax it has to deliver. Let's say you have corporate sites in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and you are faxing from New York to Santa Barbara, as shown in Figure 3. Internet Xchange for Fax will figure out whether to dial and deliver the fax from your node in San Francisco or your node in Los Angeles. The cheaper route wins. This approach means industrial-strength money savings.
Fax-Internet gateways will get even more play as they gain popularity with Internet Service Providers. ISPs are beginning to offer lower-cost faxing as a new value-added service. This service currently makes sense for only the biggest ISPs that have a Point of Presence (POP) in many locations. If your ISP invests in a fax-Internet gateway at each POP, you can send a fax, free of phone charges, to your local POP for delivery at a significant discount to someone near another POP for that ISP. Your next ISP bill will itemize your fax traffic just as the phone company does now.
Internet Xchange for Fax's client lets you initiate cost-saving fax transmissions from your desktop via Microsoft Exchange. The company also has a Java-based Web client that works with any browser on any platform. Virtual Office, the next product, is due soon. It offers non-realtime voicemail capabilities, so you can record a voice message, say, from your hotel room, and send it to a remote corporate site without incurring long distance charges (assuming you can reach your ISP with a local phone call). This technology is great when you want to send a message that is not time-critical. Ultimately, what you send appears as a voice message in the recipient's Exchange Inbox.
If your company has significant fax traffic, you'll want to look at this technology soon. Internet Exchange for Fax is available, and it will save you big money.
Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) telephone systems (i.e., PBXs) originated in the regulated telephone industry. CPE systems are known for many things, but not for being open.
Once you install such a system, your choices for additional hardware or software are usually limited and overpriced. For example, proprietary telephone sets typically cost hundreds of dollars each. As Sphere sees it, an industry that has been slow to react to emerging technologies and changing customer needs is holding you hostage.
Sphericall is a new kind of application that uses asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) to carry voice directly to the desktop, as shown in Figure 4. This product lets you implement PBX functionality with client/server software distributed throughout the network to enable workgroup telephony as a true LAN application.
Special adapter cards and software in both the client and server extend the capability of the network so that realtime voice becomes a new LAN data type. Sphericall is a distributed PBX application built around ATM LAN components.
Sphere Communications uses some cool technology that converts analog voice directly to standard ATM data packets, but the benefits are what drive this new product: You get more bandwidth to your desktop, eliminate the need for a separate PBX or telephone wiring, get voicemail as a built-in service, and get the ability to easily add users to the network (phone and data).
Sphere implements PBX call control as a distributed software application on the LAN with full TAPI support. The company also supports Microsoft Exchange as the desktop front-end for its voicemail messages.
Sphere's target market is workgroups with 10 to 100 users. As you add users, you can add Sphericall servers on the LAN to increase outside line calling capacity, provide redundancy and peak handling capacity, and run additional TAPI applications for workgroups with special call processing needs.
For its product to compete against other communications server products, Sphere must address other media types, such as fax. But turning desktop voice into part of the LAN data stream is a novel idea that might catch on. In fact, another company at the show, InnoMediaLogic from Longueuil, Quebec, demonstrated ATM network interface cards that let developers create their own version of the Sphericall product.
Computer Telephony Conference and Exposition *
Web: http:// www.ctexpo.com
Dialogic * 201-993-3030
Natural Microsystems * 508-650-1300
Rhetorex * 408-370-0881
Enterprise Interaction Center (EIC)
Interactive Intelligence * 317-872-3000
Internet Xchange for Fax
NetXchange Communication * 415-346-4131
Sphere Communications * 847-247-8200