As the nation moves through its second year after cutting the electronic apron strings from Ma Bell, there is a trend back to basics in phone equipment. But those basics are being redefined. Phones in the image of cartoon characters and other novelty designs, along with cheap one-piece phones, are giving way to more serious, businesslike phone styles. And what's catching on at home is the type of telephone features many people get hooked on at the office: hold buttons, automatic redialing, and even speakerphones.
Not everyone has leaped into the new world of modern telecommunications, though. Some people are finding, for example, that they need a home telephone that can remember for them the numbers of 62 of their nearest and dearest friends. But there are still people with party lines.
``A sizable portion of the public has responded to the breakup of the Bell System by doing nothing,'' says Mary Tonneberger, vice-president of Kennedy Research Inc., in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Still, if you are interested in more sophisticated phone equipment, either for your home or your small business, there are plenty of phonemakers ready to oblige you.
``Memory is the biggest selling feature,'' says Charles E. Levine, marketing manager for information and control products at General Electric. He claims for GE the distinction of offering ``the best-selling memory phone'' last year -- a model that can ``remember'' nine numbers (reachable by punching just two buttons) and has three ``emergency'' buttons for even faster one-touch dialing. Other popular features, says Mr. Levine, are automatic redialing and hands-free dialing: ``Features are growing more slowly than we thought they would. The market hasn't exploded, but there's been steady growth.''
Richard M. Beyer, vice-president for marketing of the business and consumer communications division of ITT Telecom, suggests that slow and steady may be better in any case. ``Features are appealing, but too many features are overwhelming.'' He adds, however, ``Last-number automatic redials, and 10 or 16 or 20 memories are becoming part of the standard phone.''
Mike Troetti of Panasonic reports ``quite substantial demand'' in the home market for its model KAXT-3130, a two-line phone incorporating such features as automatic redial and 28 memories, with a price tag of $169.95. He attributes this demand to ``so many people working at home, and so many people with computers at home. The computer's always tying up the phone, and so they need a second line.''
Of course, if people working at home are an important market, small businesses are even more so. Jeffry R. Jordan, a marketing manager for GTE Communication Systems in Phoenix, Ariz., sees smaller firms as particularly eager for the efficiencies and cost reductions new equipment can provide. ``They're more willing to buy smart phones. . . . There's tremendous pent-up demand for features,'' even at the low end of the market.
Important among these features:
Cordless phones: ``First-generation'' models were plagued with cross-talk and static, says Mr. Beyer, but new second-generation models, on the 46/49 megahertz frequency range, are much improved. They have a broader range, and their signals are coded to ``virtually eliminate'' the problem of neighbors having phones on the same frequency.
Answering machines: ``Remote access'' has been a crucial development for these machines, TADs (telephone answering devices) as they are sometimes known, says ITT's Mr. Beyer. Someone with a ``remote accessible'' machine can call in for messages and won't have to return to home or office for them. And Panasonic has a machine that can forward messages to where you are if you give a number where you can be reached. TADs are getting smaller, too, 8 by 11 inches or so, a far cry from the steamer trunks of yore.
Speakerphones: Once the province of the tycoon who couldn't be bothered to cradle a handset as he holds forth telephonically, the speakerphone is coming into its own at home. Busy mothers who can't stand still for a phone conversation, and families who want to be all in the same room to talk with distant grandparents, or siblings away at college, are the prime users of speakerphones at home.
``They're definitely catching on,'' says ITT's Beyer.
But sound quality on speakerphones ``remains an issue,'' GE's Levine concedes. Part of the problem is simply the physics of sound: A microphone ``wide open'' enough to pick up your voice as you move around the kitchen tends also to generate an echo. ``We're working on new techniques of processing the signal, though,'' he adds. ``We don't have to worry about making the signal intelligible. We're just trying to make it better now.''
But Mr. Troetti of Panasonic says speakerphones have been something of a disappointment for his company. ``Dialing features are more important.''
The high-tech home: Just before Christmas, General Electric introduced its HomeMinder, a device which allows you to control lights, stereo, coffeemaker, thermostat, and other equipment by telephone. You can automatically instruct the thermostat to turn the heat up at the end of the day, for example, so you can come home to a warm house. AT&T has a similar device.
Some of these features would seem more obviously useful than others. One manufacturer offers a ``two-by-four'' system -- two lines times four extensions on each -- for small businesses or home. The technology-conscious parent can use such a system to summon the children to dinner telephonically. In the old days parents used to just stand at the foot of the stairs and yell.