by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, April 1996

During my recent trade show expeditions, I have discovered several promising applications in the growing field of computer telephony integration. These are prime examples of the power and flexibility possible when you combine networks with telephone systems.

Computer telephony (pronounced with the primary accent on the second syllable and a secondary accent on the fourth) uses personal computers on a network to control and to augment the capabilities of a telephone switching system. Many products merely automate common phone system functions, while others "reinvent the wheel" by designing their own custom functions such as E-mail, contact management, and even network faxing. The three sample applications presented here excel in their ability to work with an organization’s existing network applications, so the organization can use the best tool in each category and combine those tools with the telephony functions to provide enhanced capabilities.

I encountered the first two products at a private trade show put on by NEC America Corporate Networks Group (Irving, TX, 800-TEAM-NEC). During an interview with NEC officials, I was quite shocked to find an "old-guard" computing and telephone corporation with such an enlightened attitude. It was absolutely refreshing to hear them inadvertently paraphrase some of my own sentiments as expressed in past articles and speeches. Rather than go the route taken in the early years of the Desktop Publishing industry and currently being taken by most of the Document and Image Management Systems (DIMS) industry, NEC is pushing to be as non-proprietary and as flexible as possible!

In both Desktop Publishing and DIMS, the "old-guard" corporations, and even some newcomers, tried to make their systems as proprietary and "closed" as possible. In early Desktop Publishing systems, you often had to buy company-branded peripherals and stick with that company’s limited word-processing and graphic-design capabilities. In current DIMS, not only are you often stuck buying special hardware, you may also be forced to buy proprietary E-mail, network fax, and even new network operating systems. In both cases, integration with other applications is forcibly and artificially limited by using nonstandard programming techniques within Microsoft Windows.

While NEC would obviously love to sell you a completely new phone switching system, with all of their own hardware and software, right down to the desktop, they have designed their computer telephony products to be integratable at both the hardware and software levels. For hardware, not only will their products work with NEC switches systems, but they will also work with any other brand that uses industry standard interfaces. For software, rather than reinventing the wheel or requiring proprietary systems, they have opened their system to outside software vendors, and have actually licensed several of them to market directly. I wish more companies had such a good attitude!

Two of these NEC-licensed programs caught my eye as being particularly powerful and flexible. Both Sixth Sense and Softphone are true client-server applications, with their server portions running as NLMs (NetWare Loadable Modules) on a NetWare Server, and their client portions running on the workstation as Windows programs. Each can be tied to other applications and control the passing of data among them.

Sixth Sense concentrates more on being the central application, with others revolving around it, while Softphone blends in more as just one of the gang. Sixth Sense is most often used as an enterprise database manager, gathering data from multiple databases and presenting it within its own screens. Softphone acts more like a personal information manager, passing requests to other programs and letting them display their own data. Either style is workable, depending on how you run your organization.

Another product, CallWare from CallWare Technologies (Salt Lake City, UT, 801-481-8978) has taken a different tack. It can interface with and control existing phone switches, but it can also turn a NetWare server into a phone switch.

Like the others, it is an NLM-based client-server application. It can integrate with other applications in a style closer to Softphone than to Sixth Sense. You can run it either directly with your existing applications or with its own front-end software called Viewpoint. It also has a module available that integrates directly with Novell’s GroupWise. CallWare’s most distinct feature is its capability of using a multi-port phone-switching board to negate the need for an expensive standalone phone switch. The money and management savings can be tremendous.

I must admit that my initial attraction to CallWare, occurred when I came upon one of their representatives in mid-demo, just as he showed how the CallWare could be easily customized by the individual user, using easy-to-learn icons, to handle incoming calls differently, depending on the identity of the caller. I just love the idea of being able to categorize calls so that some of them ring through, others get appropriate different messages, and still others get blown off with a curt warning!

Since then, I have come to appreciate computer telephony for both the features explicitly mentioned here and for its customization potential. Computer telephony could be the next big "Killer App.".

1996, Wayne M. Krakau