You've probably seen the ads: modems that handle voice mail; computers that promise to make the answering machine obsolete. But when users try the product, they usually come away disappointed. It's a computing paradox: Your $2,000 computer can't keep up with a $20 answering machine.
Fortunately, personal computers (PCs) are about to get a lot more phone savvy. Intel and Microsoft are slated to release hardware and software that could standardize the way PCs handle calls. In a year, predicts Carl Linhardt, vice president of marketing for Cypress Research Corporation in Santa Clara, Calif., voice-mail will become a routine feature of the basic PC.
For some users - those using Power Macintoshes - that future is already here. Every new Macintosh, for example, includes Cypress Research's MegaPhone software. With a few clicks of a mouse, users can get their computer to make and receive calls. The software also comes bundled with Apple's GeoPort, a faxing and modem device usable on all Power Macintoshes.
Not everyone uses the program the same way. Al Saul, a graphic designer in suburban Pittsburgh, relies on his telephone company's voice-mail service for incoming calls but uses his Performa to make outgoing calls from a computerized address book. MegaPhone can also take messages and remember complicated dialing patterns when a user, say, is checking his bank account by phone.
Cypress Research also makes a more sophisticated product called PhonePro, which allows users to build phone-answering systems that rival anything at a large corporation. It uses icons to represent each step in the call-receiving process. By linking icons, users can build elaborate automated fax-back and order-taking systems.
The software may be too complicated for the average user. But that hasn't stopped a golf club from setting up a system that allows its members to dial up and reserve their usual tee times. A pet service uses PhonePro for its customers on the road who want to dial up a daily recorded report of how their pet is doing.
While the Macintosh is strong in handling a single-line phone, the IBM-compatible world has concentrated on handling big multiline systems for businesses. Companies such as Dialogic make special boards that slip into PCs. Software companies then write programs that can handle several telephone calls at a time.
The problem is that all these systems are proprietary. So one company's hardware doesn't work with somebody else's software. Experts predict this will change quickly, however, with new developments.
A key technology is digital signal processing, which turns the sound of a telephone call into the digital language that computers can understand. Answering machines use specialized chips to handle the math involved. Part of the main chip in the new Macintoshes is also devoted to that function.
But the main chips in rival IBM-compatible computers are devoted to other types of calculations. So the chips can't handle telephone sound as quickly. What takes a $20 answering machine and a Power Macintosh one cycle to figure out requires 11 cycles from an advanced IBM-compatible, estimates Will Strauss, president of Forward Concepts, a market-research firm in Tempe, Ariz.
This should change, because Intel, which makes most of the main chips for IBM-compatible computers plans to release a new version that mimicks the answering machine's capabilities. Meanwhile, Microsoft is aiming to set the software standards for how a PC handles a telephone signal. If these standards prevail, computer-telephone companies will have a common platform so that they can concentrate on building the most innovative and simplest voice-mail software.
So one day, you might finally be able to pitch that $20 answering machine.
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