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05 March

Ancient Telecom: Funny Stuff

atfsIt all started when my third telephone answering machine joined its predecessors and quit taking intelligible messages. Because its warranty had expired, my options were to spend yet another $150 for a new one or $150 getting the old one repaired. Such is the economics of electronics.

It seemed like the perfect time to junk the answering machine and start getting my phone messages on my computer, where I already get my e-mail, news stories, faxes, and everything else worth saving. After all, my home office is kept toasty by two computers that are left on 24 hours a day. If I’m not online downloading stock quotes into one machine, it’s because I’m loading business cards and receipts into the other. A third computer is my test bed, and a fourth gives me computing power at my other “office,” a 5 1/2-acre avocado farm in the mountains of north San Diego County. Suffice it to say, I’m a little involved with computers. In fact, you’re more likely to see a duck strolling past a June bug than to see me passing up a chance to perform one of my daily activities with my PC. Installing one of the new Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) boards seemed like a natural solution.

Mind you, I’m not into PC technology for its own sake. I don’t spend my off-hours debating the merits of Star Trek with media junkies on the Internet. For me, technology is good for only one thing: profits. And a dozen years of pushing the personal technology envelope has shown me that every investment I’ve made in computer or telephone equipment has paid off in enhanced productivity – usually in short order.

Being a writer and a farmer gives me some communications needs that are, to say the least, difficult. Nearly all my writing business these days is done over phone lines. But playing telephone tag with editors and interview subjects, swapping e-mail, dialing up online news and other services, and taking down faxes can get messy. I end up logging in and out of half a dozen communications programs a couple of times a day, not to mention cutting and pasting stories and messages back and forth between them.

My farm, which is several hours away from my home office, needs plenty of attention as well. I need to be able to bounce back and forth between the two at will, with no falloff in productivity. It would simplify my life immensely if I could manage all my communications from one device (at least one device per location). I’d like to download all my messages – fax, voice mail, e-mail – to a single place on my computer with a single communications program. I’d also like the same program to direct my faxes, e-mail, pages, and other outgoing communications to whatever device my technologically challenged addressee has available at the time. I also need to get at the faxes and voice messages on my different machines when I’m on the road. Is that too much to ask?

It is, for the fax/modems I have now. They lack both the horsepower and the software to make it happen. But CTI boards are a different breed; they’re equipped with powerful digital signal processors (DSPs) and other specialized components, as well as the software to take advantage of it all. CTI boards take the relationship between PC and telephone to a new level and come close to delivering the universal in-box and integrated address book/dialer that I crave.

Actually, I’ve been watching and waiting for CTI technology to hit its stride for some time. My old 386 is equipped with a TyIn 2000, one of the early fax/modem/answering machine combinations that began trickling out a couple of years ago. It works great, but its modem is only 2400bps, an orphaned relic of the industry’s first push to integrate the telephone and computer. This time, though, it looks like the market is finally ready. Such PC makers as AST, AT&T, Austin Computer, and IBM have begun to replace the communications and multimedia boards in their retail PCs with the same multipurpose CTI add-in boards that you can buy at retail. The next time you buy a PC, expect your new machine to include this capability. But with more than enough PCs already cluttering up my offices, I just needed an add-in card – something I could quickly install so I could get back to pruning my trees.

Installation – As Easy As…

When I started looking into the new CTI boards, I discovered that the communications options had expanded practically overnight. You’re now able to upgrade to whatever level best fits your needs and budget – not to mention your tolerance for hardware and software installation.

Manufacturers have bridged the gap between PCs and phones in two ways. Three of the products I checked out – Creative Labs Phone Blaster, Zoom Telephonics VFPI4.4V, and Prometheus CyberPhone – are essentially souped-up modems equipped to handle sound and bundled with voice-mail software. If you’re just looking for a voice-mail system, don’t want anything fancy, and favor a simpler installation, you might want to check this category out. These boards didn’t require that I uninstall any of my existing hardware except for my modem (I have an internal unit), so installation hassles were minimal. There are even external models available for the truly inside-the-computer-phobic. These devices are reasonably cheap and easy to install, but they lack the more complete integration between voice, fax, and e-mail that I sought.

High-end CTI boards, on the other hand, provide dramatically increased functionality – at the price of more time and effort. Devices such as MediaMagic Telemetry 32, Spectrum Signal Processing Office F/X, and Diamond Multimedia TeleCommander 2500XL use what’s known as a DSP chip. DSP chips are designed to deal with sound data, which makes them ideal for handling voice messages. These chips are highly versatile, and manufacturers have taken full advantage of that fact by making them do double-duty as modems, sound cards, CD-ROM controllers, and midi/joystick ports. Some boards also included wave table functionality, which enabled me to record crisp-sounding greetings. If it had been appropriate for my business, I could have added professional-sounding music, customer instructions, or even an advertisement to play for callers on hold. I particularly appreciated the DSP boards that allowed for software upgrades to such functions as 28.8Kbps throughput, text-to-speech capability, and voice recognition in the future. These helped reassure me that I wouldn’t have to relive the hassles of installing the hardware.

And what hassles they were. “The biggest gotcha [with CTI boards] is ease of installation,” admits Jay Blazensky of Creative Labs. “Bringing down the learning curve is one of our greatest challenges because we’re asking someone to install a product that encompasses so many different functions.” He’s right. I installed half a dozen of the most complex high-end CTI boards, and though all of them eventually performed as documented, it definitely took some tweaking. Of course, your experience will vary with your PC’s configuration and your own level of expertise.

A case in point: My AST was already equipped with a fax/modem, sound card, CD-ROM interface, and joystick interface. I tried to avoid removing and cataloging all of them by just swapping out the CTI board for the fax/modem and leaving the sound card to drive the CD-ROM. In my naivete, I had imagined that I could switch between a CTI board’s audio functions and the sound card. But after wasting hours trying to achieve peaceful board coexistence, I eventually had to yank all boards with equivalent functions and hook up the CD-ROM and joystick to the CTI board.

The yanking wasn’t hard. But when I tried to match the power, CD-ROM, and audio cables to the right brand of connector, I confused the direction of the CD-ROM cable – a mistake capable of frying the CD-ROM drive had I been less lucky. Similarly, the CD-audio connectors were mislabeled on one CTI board, causing me several anxious moments as I plugged a Sony cable into what was labeled a Panasonic connector. Fortunately, it worked. Unfortunately, there was no CTI connector for the audio cable that had once gone from the AST’s motherboard to its fax/modem. I just left it off, crossed my fingers, and again no harm was done.

It’s All in the Software

All CTI boards provide cutting-edge hardware, but the level to which each fulfills the promise of a universal in-box and phone book is dependent to a large degree on software. I still couldn’t put every type of message in one place on these products, nor all possible phone numbers on one page of their phone books. The best of the bunch were the systems that came with Phone Blaster, Audio Telephony 2000, SoundExpression 14.4VSp, and TeleCommander 2500XL, whose in-boxes let me house various combinations of voice messages, faxes, e-mail, and even audio files from phone conversations that I recorded using their products. Their phone books let me keep different combinations of voice, fax routers, e-mail, and pager numbers, and they were integrated with autodialers as well as fax and e-mail managers to automate these processes as much as possible.

I had hoped that CTI boards would seamlessly merge traditional phone functionality with applications already on my hard drive. Unfortunately, the lack of industry standards (see “Have You No Standards?”) has stymied this development somewhat, but a couple of products are coming close. For example, Day-Timer Organizer can be integrated with the communications center of the Diamond Multimedia’s Telecommander 2500XL. If Telecommander recognizes a caller via caller ID and you’ve got that number in your database, the appropriate Day-timer file is displayed before you even pick up the phone. (You’re out of luck if you use another organizer such as Act! or Sidekick.) Several boards have simultaneous voice-over data, which lets you send binary files – spreadsheets, voice recordings, memos, or other shared work – to the person you’re speaking with, all on a single phone line.

I didn’t have any problems installing the software that came with these products, although each required up to 15MB of my hard disk and much more for message storage. However, all of the CTI communication centers changed my system files – AUTOEXEC. BAT, CONFIG.SYS, WIN.INI, and SYSTEM.INI – and most lacked uninstall routines. So before I installed a CTI board, I created backup copies of those files so I could restore my PC to its original state should something have gone awry during installation.

Draw or Hold?

Whenever buying a PC product, I always count on at least one thing: It will quickly become obsolete. This means that, especially for an emerging technology like CTI, the temptation to “wait until things settle down” is palpable. Although that rationale has a certain internal consistency, it overlooks the main reason for having a PC in the first place – enhanced productivity and increased revenues.

For under $300 – the price of a slow fax/modem not so long ago – these boards give you a state-of-the art communications system with one of the best price/performance bargains going. If you need further convincing, compare the price of buying a phone, answering machine, modem, contact manager/address book, and communication software separately. Then take into account that most phones and answering machines don’t talk to your PC. Is the choice really that difficult?

Nevertheless, I still haven’t found the CTI board that I’m totally satisfied with – but then again, my standards are in the stratosphere. Although low-end models cause fewer headaches, I’m interested in having the whole promise delivered. If I’m going to pop the top on my PC and move boards around, I want my time and money to go toward the most capable product available. Still, just installing an internal modem scares some people. A CTI board would probably make them run for the hills. If tinkering inside a PC isn’t attractive to you, make sure your next new PC has one preinstalled. That’s the way I’d have gone, if only I had the desk space.

Have You No Standards?

Seamless integration of the computer and the telephone might already be with us if the two industries involved weren’t worlds apart. CTI boards are somewhat troublesome because they perform so many functions, but many of the problems associated with them are due to the lack of standards on both sides of the computer/telephone divide. At this point, CTI board makers are still doing everything themselves – single-handedly combining hardware and software to bridge the gaps between PCs and phones.

Microsoft is attempting to jump-start some standards by incorporating its Telephone Application Programming Interface (TAPI) and Mail Application Programming Interface (MAPI) into Windows 95. The TAPI and MAPI standards would allow many applications to use the same address database and would provide tighter integration between these products and CTI boards (not to mention eliminating the hassle of having to modify five different programs’ databases when one person changes his phone number). This also means your CTI board’s in-box and phone book would take on a look and feel consistent with other Windows 95 applications and could include a wider variety of entries, such as e-mail addresses. You could even use other software such as contact managers from third parties in place of the bundled phone book, autodialer, or message center.

Telephone and computer hardware companies, however, are also attempting to hammer out standards for the way our digital PCs process analog information from communications devices. The jury is still out as to which standard developers will eventually accept – but the deliberating could easily drag on late into 1996.

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