CALLER ID appeals to homeowners wanting to end harassment calls. But can a service that displays a caller's telephone number do anything for businesses?
Plenty, if Caller ID is linked to a personal computer, says Gilbert Amine, president of Rochelle Communications Inc. in Austin, Texas.
Rochelle makes a saltine-sized connector that lets a computer react to the Caller ID signal the telephone company sends between the first and second ring. Rochelle and cooperating software companies have developed software applications for a variety of businesses:
* Takeout restaurants and taxi companies can screen out crank calls by matching the caller's telephone number with an address from a telephone book on CD-ROM and the caller's order history from a database.
* Pizza chains can advertise a single number for orders, and let a program route calls to the restaurant nearest to the customer.
* Businesses can detect and thwart call-in computer hackers.
* Companies can be alerted to potential security problems, if their night watchmen fail to call from specific telephones at specific times.
* Radio stations can screen out repeat callers trying to skew the results of call-in polls.
* When phones are ringing off the wall, stock brokers can see which calls are from highly valued customers and answer those first.
* Businesses can tell when a competitor is calling. They can find out how many callers hang up before getting an answer - and call them back. They can track time spent with clients.
* Small communities in Vermont and West Virginia are even using the system because 911 emergency service isn't available.
Lisa Wilder, product manager of Caller ID at Southwestern Bell Corporation, says call logging and screening are the Caller ID features that are ``overwhelmingly'' the most popular with small businesses.
``So many people will hang up and not leave a message,'' Ms. Wilder says. She cites one case in which a plumber returned to the office and used Caller ID to retrieve the number of one such caller. He reached the caller in time to win back his business.
In just six years, Rochelle has become the leading supplier in North America of Caller ID hardware and applications software for businesses, Mr. Amine says.
Founded in 1988, Rochelle today has 20 partners, led by Amine and 10 employees. In 1990, the company announced its first product at Comdex, the colossal trade show for the electronics industry. ``We were just a little dot on the landscape,'' Amine says. Yet the uniqueness of the product, Caller ID+Plus, whose hardware is packaged with software for managing contacts, earned a lot of attention. John Dvorak, of PC Magazine, at that time called it ``one of the finest products I've seen in five years.''
Unfortunately, few people could use it. ``We were getting these wonderful write-ups,'' Amine says, but Caller ID service was rare, as states sorted through concerns over privacy.
Meanwhile, 80 percent of Rochelle's inquiries came from businesses that had not one line, but up to 12. They wanted each employee to be able to see who was calling or holding on each line. And they wanted to integrate Caller ID into existing software applications.
In 1992, Rochelle came out with a second generation of the product. It allows information on up to 12 callers to be displayed on multiple computers in an office, even if those computers are not on a local area network. Rochelle also developed a software ``tool kit'' so that customer applications can be modified to work with Caller ID.
In 1992, Rochelle beat eight major companies to supply multi-line Caller ID equipment to Bell Canada. Next month, Amine says, a regional Bell company will announce its selection of Rochelle to be its supplier of Caller ID business products.
Northern Telecom Limited, the global manufacturer of telecommunications equipment, makes telephones with a built-in Caller ID display, says Ian Buchanan, manager of new business development at Northern Telecom. As for a computer tie-in, Mr. Buchanan says: ``Rochelle is doing that. So it's a matter of whether we can add any value. Maybe we'll just let them do that.''
Caller ID is now available in 43 states and Canada. Trials are under way in England and Australia. And the service will be available next year in Israel, the Netherlands, Sweden, and France.
Although Rochelle is the leader, that status is based on just a few thousand sales. The market has barely been scratched.
One barrier is lack of customer awareness. Rochelle relies on local telephone companies to pitch Caller ID to businesses, but they haven't done a good job, Amine says. A second barrier is that Caller ID only displays local calls in most areas. But in March the Federal Communications Commission ruled that long distance companies must provide the Caller ID signal by April 1995.
Amine says Rochelle has not yet recovered $1 million spent on research and development. But sales last year reached $500,000. He forecasts sales of $1 million this year, $6 million in 1995, and $20 million in 1996.