Special Report: ANNUAL GUIDE TO COMPUTERS: Communications
LET YOUR PC DO THE WALKING
The personal computer has assumed the role of many once-familiar tools. The typewriter, the general ledger notebook, the calculator--all have been replaced, or at least elbowed aside, by PCs in techno-savvy households and home offices.
Next to go may be another annoying laggard in the world of high-tech communications: the telephone. "We've become so accustomed to this dumb animal called the phone that we don't even notice its deficiencies anymore," says Telephony Books publisher Harry Newton, a phone industry analyst. "I can't wait for the day I no longer have to deal with it."
IDIOT-PROOF. How about today? While tapping into the Internet and online services remains the main way to communicate from a desktop or laptop, PCs are becoming increasingly adept at managing voice calling. New multimedia models from Apple, Compaq, Packard Bell Electronics, and others come with speakerphones and built-in answering machines. Assuming your PC has a sound card and modem (as 80% of new home PCs do), you can beef up a PC to store and forward voice mail as easily as E-mail. And while the phone's tiny keypad requires you to remember codes, such as *7 to transfer calls, software developers are creating onscreen command pads with idiot-proof buttons marked "transfer" or "hold."
The ability to dial a phone through a personal computer has been around for a while--after all, that's how your modem works. But developing software for making us all cyberdialers is a bit trickier. "We have had to wait for hardware that doesn't make our software look clunky," says Michael Stanford, chairman of Dallas-based AlgoRhythms. His company's "virtual phone," called PhoneKits, comes preloaded on Compaq's Presario 7100 series home PCs. With PhoneKits, you can dial a number by simply clicking on a person's name in an electronic Rolodex. More such products are on the way, thanks to a standard called TAPI (telephone applications program interface), which is incorporated into Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 95 software.
Some examples of the new products: Universal messaging programs, such as AnswerSoft Inc.'s SoftPhones, let you deal with all manner of messages--faxes, E-mail, phone calls--using simple onscreen commands. Symantec Corp. is developing new versions of ACT, a contact management program, that will work with caller ID services (available to residential phone customers in every state but California). It will call up files about a caller--name, title, and details of recent conversations, for example--before you pick up the phone. If the caller isn't known, upcoming products will be able to scan electronic directories to get a positive ID.
HELP LINES. Such features are great for helping home offices come off like big businesses on the phone. PC-based voice-mail systems now cost about $340 a worker, compared with $1,040 for more complex corporate systems, according to Dataquest Inc. You can even set up a mailbox for each employee or family member. Some systems allow callers to ask for information to be faxed back simply by pressing a Touch-Tone phone key. SelectPhone, a product that's due out in December from Acton (Mass.)-based Aurora Systems Corp., will forward calls automatically to your cellular phone or hotel room. "The idea is to turn the PC into your personal communication system," says Aurora CEO Paul M. Gasparro.
If you're buying a new PC this season, you will see many models that come with phone setups. If you're upgrading, there are kits from Diamond MultiMedia Systems, Creative Labs, and Miro Computer Products, among others. Priced around $300, they do the work of a sound card, fax, modem, and answering machine all on one card--and come with a bewildering array of software that can make configuration tricky. Luckily, most card companies have toll-free help lines to guide you through the process. Another thing to keep in mind about such cards is that the sound quality can be tinny.
You can also get into PC telephony without taking apart your computer. Comdial Corp. and Israel-based SounDesigns Multimedia Communications Systems Ltd., for example, make Walkman-size dialing modules that let you control plain old telephones via the PC: Comdial's $100 unit shares the parallel printer port, while SDS' $49 offering connects to the sound card. AT&T offers a $180 Computer Telephone that can also exploit TAPI-compliant software.
Meanwhile, technology is bringing new options for data communications. For example, the standard speed for modems is now escalating to 28,800 bits per second. At $150 or so, these devices are about the fastest that ordinary phone lines will handle. They cost roughly three times as much as the 14,400 versions, but if you're sick of waiting for a page from the World Wide Web to show up on your screen, you'll think it's worth the price. Dwight W. Decker, president of modem market leader Rockwell Telecommunications Inc. in Newport Beach, Calif., expects 28,800 bps models to rise from 25% of sales today to 75% a year from now.
If you're modem-shopping, consider shelling out an additional $50 to get a so-called DSVD model (that's short for digital simultaneous voice and data). Made by U.S. Robotics and others, these can transmit voice and data at the same time.
Once popular software programs are updated to take advantage of this, the work-at-home crowd will be able to talk to distant colleagues or clients while poring over spreadsheets and the like. Similarly, PC game players will be able to taunt each other mid-dogfight. Another handy benefit: When you call a PC maker's help line, a technician will be able to take control of your PC and check it out while speaking with you.
NET COSTS. With the multimedia Web, even 28,800 bps can seem pokey--as any Net surfer knows. For those who want more, new hardware and software is trickling in to retail shelves to support ISDN (integrated services digital network), a service available from most local phone companies that moves data at speeds up to 128,000 bps. Pricing varies across the U.S. Pacific Telesis Group, the San Francisco-based Baby Bell, hopes to sign up 1 million customers for ISDN by 2000. It charges $30 to install a line, a $30-a-month usage fee, and approximately 1 cents per minute. Texans, on the other hand, must pay SBC Communications Inc. $485 for installation, $37 a month, and 15 cents per minute of use.
But that's not all: No matter what the service costs, you'll also need an ISDN adapter kit to hook up your PC. Sold by Intel, 3Com, and others, they're available at stores including CompUSA and Fry's Electronics for $300 to $1000.
All this makes ISDN plenty pricey--especially since, beyond the Web, there are few applications that take advantage of its potential for delivering video and other bandwidth-hogging fare. Yet analysts predict that ISDN gear will become as common as modems when PCs take on more communications functions. "There's a constant drive for a fatter pipe," says Diamond MultiMedia CEO Bill Schroeder. Especially if yappers everywhere start talking to their PCs.
HOW TO PREPARE YOUR PC FOR A WIRED WORLD
28.8 BPS MODEMS
At $150, they are roughly three times as expensive as slower 14.4 bps models. But if you're tired of waiting for online data to arrive, you'll be happy to pay the extra. And by early next year, anything less will be obsolete.
DIGITAL SIMULTANEOUS VOICE AND DATA MODEMS
Available from U.S. Robotics and others for around $400. These modems let you talk and send data back and forth at the same time on one phone line.
To use these high-capacity phone lines from the phone company and get data at up to 128,000 bps, you need a PC adapter kit. Available from 3Com, Diamond MultiMedia, and U.S. Robotics, they range from about $300 to $1,000.
PC TELEPHONY CARDS
Priced at around $300, these add-in cards from Diamond MultiMedia, Creative Labs, and Miro Computer Products do the work of a sound card, fax, modem, and answering machine--all wrapped into one.
Comdial and SounDesigns Multimedia Communications Systems sell small modules that attach to your phone and PC to let you control the phone via the PC. The prices: $100 and $49, respectively.
DATA: BUSINESS WEEKPeter Burrows