inttepyComputer-telephony integration is a major step toward blending all of your company’s office equipment into an integrated computing environment. Although efforts like Microsoft At Work will soon enable applications to control office equipment such as facsimile and copy machines, CTI is coming from a wide range of vendors from both the computer and telecommunications industries.

CTI automatically connects a company’s telephone traffic with its databases and makes it easier for employees to access advanced features found in modern telephones. CTI can also streamline the way many work with their telephones by integrating voice, fax, and text files; currently, this is being accomplished by connecting PBXs with LANs.

Growing interest

The barriers to CTI’s implementation are high cost and a lack of applications — although more are starting to appear. The cost of CTI is coming down as telecommunications companies begin using standard APIs, which in turn makes it easier to create applications.

CTI proponents speak of the productivity gains that can be achieved when telephone and computer work spaces are integrated. One of the most obvious applications for CTI is in telemarketing, both “inbound” and “outbound.”

On the inbound side, database applications able to take advantage of caller identification can provide instant information to the person receiving the call. Order histories, preferences, and all types of business-related data can be made easily available to that user.

Even in California, where the use of caller ID is currently illegal, companies that use inbound WATS lines can still take advantage of these features. (If you pay for the call, as in the case of WATS service, you have access to the phone number of the caller.)

On the outbound side, the user has excellent call-management and tracking facilities available in most CTI applications. The facilities include simple items, such as the ability to log the numbers that are called and the duration of the call as well as the ability to build applications that maintain contact lists and tickler files, and perform call scheduling. These types of applications can be provided to any line of business that is oriented around the telephone.

For users to whom the telephone is simply one of many tools used each day, CTI applications can also offer some advantages. For example, how often are users involved in multiparty calls? The traditional method of dealing with these calls usually involves a central party calling all of the other sites involved. Each time a conference call is held, even if it is a repeated event, the call process is the same. In most cases, disconnecting individual sites is not possible without starting a new call.

A CTI application can keep track of individual call sites, place specific lines on hold, or disconnect those sites. A call group could be created to make all of the connections for a recurring conference call to simplify the process. On a simpler note, CTI applications offer users the ability to create local and shared phone books that can store contact information as well as phone numbers. These phone books can be searched in the same fashion as a database product, letting users store or recall the contac t information and numbers in a variety of ways.

One of the disadvantages to large-scale CTI implementation is also one of its selling points — the ability to audit an individual’s phone calls. Companies can measure employee productivity using audit logs that track calls. Audit logs also allow employers to keep tabs on whom their staff calls on company time. While some firms have established phone-use guidelines, those that don’t might be prompted to establish them, inasmuch as staff who use CTI systems might feel unfairly audited by this process.

CTI apps ahoy

The applications that are appearing fall into two categories: stand-alone, and multiuser or networked products. The stand-alone products usually consist of a circuit board that plugs into the user’s computer, to which a telephone handset and an analog phone line is attached. A proprietary application is attached to that piece of hardware and usually provides basic call-management and voice-mail features. Some of the products can also be used to provide voice annotation of documents.

Though corporate users can take advantage of the aforementioned type of product, network-based applications that integrate with the user’s phone switch are of greater value. One of the more prominent industry collaborations for CTI was Novell Inc.’s joint announcement with AT&T Corp. to support AT&T’s Definity PBX hardware.

Definity hardware is found in small to medium-sized sites, as well as large companies. The Novell solution integrates NetWare and the Definity switch via an NLM that runs on a NetWare server. In its initial release, it requires NetWare 3.11 or later, as well as the Btrieve NLM. As Novell doesn’t ship Btrieve with its current versions of NetWare, users should add the cost of Btrieve to the equation when evaluating CTI products.

SRX Systems also integrates its CTI product in a NetWare environment, but with a totally different approach. It uses an OS/2 workstation running on the network to act as a central manager of the CTI system. SRX got its start in the CTI business by building 911 emergency dispatch systems.

Sun Microsystems Inc. has been shipping a product called XTL Teleservices. XTL is primarily a set of libraries for developers to build applications that manage telephone and data services.

Every vendor combination provides a platform-specific API that enables applications to be built that are specific to that combination. In an attempt to provide a cross-platform end-user application environment, Microsoft has released a TAPI (Telephony API for Windows).

In typical Microsoft fashion, TAPI attempts to be all things to all people. But that is not necessarily a bad thing on the client side. The ability to develop CTI applications that have the same appearance regardless of the back-end PBX hardware is of obvious value. Of course, a commitment to this development strategy presupposes the absence of telephony clients that are not Windows-based.

IBM offers OS/2-based solutions to the CTI question, Call Path and Direct Talk. It also offers a turnkey solution called Total Talk, which includes IBM’s software products installed on a PS/2 system in configurations starting with two phone lines. A product such as this would be a good starting point for companies interested in evaluating CTI.