Voice-Processing Services Link Telephones With PCs

Seattle firm hits mark with those who shun call-handling

A SHOEHORN. A paper clip. A spring.

Images of these classic devices, all easy to use, are prominently displayed on the first page of Active Voice Corporation's annual report. The company then adds to the list its voice-processing service, based around the simple idea of pressing ``1 for yes, 2 for no.''

People who cringe at answering-service mazes beginning with the recorded words, ``If you are calling from a touch-tone phone, press 1,'' may not be quickly convinced. But the Seattle company has developed products compelling enough to have sales grow 45 percent annually for the last five years, more than twice the overall industry rate.

Now the industry is entering a new phase, one that promises to expand the usefulness and simplicity of voice-processing products: Computers are increasingly being linked with telephones. In the past, by contrast, users generally accessed voice-processing services only by telephone. Examples of these standard services include voice mail, automated attendants that perform like a telephone receptionist, and ``audiotext'' services that allow callers to punch phone buttons to get information.

Active Voice and rivals are now rolling out products that provide phone messages on the personal-computer screen. Users can hear them with the click of a ``mouse.''

Under the brand name TeLANophy (a LAN is a local-area network of computers), Active Voice recently introduced several new services. One called ``View Mail'' lists the numbers of callers or fax messages on the computer, and allows the user to hear them in any order - either on the telephone or through a speaker attached to the PC. The user can quickly see which messages the caller flagged as ``urgent,'' the names of callers (if the computer recognizes their numbers), the time the calls arrived, and the length of each message.

With a few clicks of the mouse, a user can forward the voice or fax message to others in the office, showing up on their list of messages or even ``embedded'' into a text document. (Anyone who reads the document can then click on a voice-mail icon to hear the message). Users can also cancel an in-house message.

Such services may help the $1.2 billion industry penetrate the many businesses that have yet to install a voice-mail system. Even many big companies have held off because of worries that automated call-handling will put off customers who prefer a real person to answer the phone, says Nancy Jamison, an analyst with Dataquest, a market-research firm in San Jose, Calif.

Skepticism is likely to dwindle as new voice services come along and awareness of them grows, Ms. Jamison says.

One capability she says she foresees being added to phone systems: When someone is leaving his or her workplace and gets a busy signal at home, the person could record a message that the voice-processing system would call home and deliver a few moments later, after the worker has headed home.

Active Voice president Robert Richmond, in an interview, talked about products Active Voice is developing or considering:

* One big priority is automatically integrating text ``E-mail'' into View Mail alongside voice and fax messages.

* Another gleam in Mr. Richmond's eye is to offer a system that can automatically translate text messages into audio ones. He says this service could be invaluable to people calling in from the road to pick up messages.

Active Voice, though relatively small in annual sales ($28 million last year), accounted for about 13 percent of systems the industry shipped in 1993, putting the company among a handful of industry leaders, including Octel Communications Corporation, American Telephone & Telegraph Corporation, Northern Telecom, and Applied Voice Technology.

A typical Active Voice system consists of a PC that is connected to both the phone system and the computer network at a workplace.

This central ``server'' machine could potentially take 20 messages at once for an individual, while that person is talking on his or her phone. With the company's top-of-the-line systems, the server computer makes information available on the PC screens of all users. Lower-end products are used by phone only.

For an added fee, the high-end systems offer another feature called ``View Call,'' a call-control function that Jamison says ``you either like or you hate.'' The system forwards the name of the caller (recorded live an instant earlier when a machine voice requests your name), allowing the recipient to take the call, redirect it, leave the person on hold, or play voice mail.

Richmond, a former rock-band bass player and software expert from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, co-founded Active Voice in 1983. His background led to a product line that runs on standard PCs, keeping hardware costs low and allowing the company to focus on software to process calls. This stands in contrast to the proprietary hardware other industry players have created.

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