Merger of computers, phones: edging toward office of the future

Don't look now, but emerging technology is likely to make it increasingly harder to tell a telephone and a computer apart. Voice-data integration -- the ``marriage'' of voice and computer data transmission -- ``is leading to the merging of these two . . . different types of communication. As a result, people's thinking is going through tremendous changes,'' observes Ken Zita, an analyst with Northern Business Inc. Mr. Zita has been following developments in this field for a year and a half now.

Already companies have developed a potpourri of devices combining the function of computer and telephone. And integrated voice-data terminals (IVDTs) are widely seen as playing a key role in the coming battle for the ``office of the future.''

That battle will pit the likes of International Business Machines Inc., American Telephone & Telegraph, the Japanese company NEC, Wang Corporation, and Datapoint against one another.

Recent signs of this coming confrontation include IBM's recent purchase of the Rolm Company, whose product line includes IVDTs. In addition, AT&T has filed with the Federal Communications Commisson an integrated telephone/computer code named Safari, which apparently will be released early this year.

``It is my view that, at some point, the telephone will simply disappear from the office desk,'' contends Gary Carlsted of Dataquest, a market research company. Dataquest projects that 1984's $160 million market for IVDTs will grow by 80 percent annually.

Companies hoping to cash in on this blending of computer and telephone have already wrought a wild variety of hybrids. Some of these products include:

The newest multiple-line business telephones, or PBXs. These are actually computers in disguise. Instead of hard-wiring each extension into the central exchange, or switchboard, new systems use a microprocessor to route calls to addresses assigned to each instrument. This makes the system more flexible. Receivers can be added and subtracted, extension numbers changed more easily.

Products like CMC International's PC Dial/log and MacPhone by Intermatrix are transforming personal computers such as the IBM PC and Apple's Macintosh into elaborate telephone accessories.

PC Dial/log converts an IBM PC XT or equivalent into a full-fledged, single-user ``voice messaging system.'' It records incoming and outgoing verbal messages and will automatically dial and deliver them to a list of up to 150 different phone numbers. A special ``truancy officer'' version has been developed for schools: It automatically dials the homes of all the students who are absent and reports the absence to parents.

MacPhone is more limited in that it does not record spoken messages but acts as a super-autodialer and maintains a log of all phone calls automatically.

Ambi Corporation's Ambiset is a sleek, portable unit designed to handle voice and data communications. It mixes equal parts of telephone and computer and plugs into two phone lines so one can handle computer data while an ordinary conversation is carried on over the other.

According to Roy Dudley, Ambi's West Coast sales representative, Pizza Hut is using Ambisets for taking phone orders, a hospital is experimenting with them for nurse stations, and the Bank of America is installing them on the desks of loan officers in branch offices.

Currently, Bank of America's loan officers will get a call about a loan, take down the relevant information, hang up, go to a computer console, type in the information about the loan, get the information they need to make a decision, and call the person back with an answer. With an Ambiset, this can all be done from the loan officer's desk, and he can give the client an answer within minutes.

Sydis Inc.'s VoiceStation is a Cadillac version of the voice-data integration technology. It is a departmental communication system with terminals wired into a central computer the size of a filing cabinet. The work station is a prism-shaped display terminal with an amber screen and a telephone receiver and tone pad welded to one side.

``Integrated voice and data systems will be widely used in office automation because they enhance communications, the most time-consuming office activity,'' Robert T. Nicholson of Sydis maintains.

Sydis allows people to send spoken and written messages to other people in the department. It also allows written messages with verbal notes attached.

Thus, an executive who is more comfortable with dictation than typing can dictate a letter and send it to the secretary. The secretary can type the letter, note any questions verbally, and send it back to the author for review. Essentially, systems like Sydis and PC Dial/log use special circuits to digitize voice messages, store them in computer media, and replay them upon demand. Thus, verbal messages and other computer files can coexist. However, the two are not yet really integrated.

``The current technology is still fairly crude,'' Mr. Zita says.

Serious problems remain before voice and data can be fully integrated. Major breakthroughs are required before computers can respond to natural language rather than specific sets of commands, and before computers can recognize spoken dialogue.

These areas are the focus of intense efforts on the part of many companies. Voice synthesis, which converts computer text into recognizable but stilted speech, has been developed by companies such as Texas Instruments and is becoming increasingly common. Digital Equipment Corporation, for instance, recently announced a product called Dectalk Mail Access that electronically pronounces messages typed into the computer.

The opposite process, converting spoken dialogue into computer text, is far more difficult. Systems have been developed that can decipher a limited number of spoken words. Only a specific vocabulary of a few hundred words or phrases is allowed, and each word or phrase must be said distinctly with pauses in between. Generally this has been used as an alternate to keying commands into a computer.

This same technology has been used for a novelty telephone that will place calls when they are given voice commands.

But providing computers with the ability to parse free flowing speech is considered a decade or more away.

Ultimately, full video will be added to voice and data. In the lab, several companies have successfully demonstrated the transmission over ordinary telephone wire of the extremely high data rates (more than 2 million bits per second) required for video. This is also considered a post-1990 technology. -- 30 --{et

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