CTI isn't just about telephone switches: there are technologies that unite the telephone and the computer, which can have massive savings for business
1. Internet phones
All calls for the cost of a local call with products like WebSpeak from Quarterdeck. The quality is currently poor, but using the Internet for telephone conversations offers too many financial benefits to be ignored forever. The challenge for resellers is to make this process transparent, so that users have their calls routed through the Internet when there's capacity, and when it's cheaper.
Rapid payback for users because of the cost savings of automating faxback, but now a new generation of 'webback' is also evolving, where users can be sent HTML documents too. Don't think that the fax and email are two different technologies for ever.
3. International callback
US-based international calls are so cheap that it's cheaper to call some destinations by phoning a US-based service and placing a conference call to the third party. Savings range between 20 per cent and 80 per cent for users. If your customer has heavy international call use, then the challenge is not just to make this accessible, it's to make it easy to use.
TAPI vs TSAPI.
This looks familiar: one type of application, two APIs, one of which just happens to be supplied by Microsoft. As with email and a hundred technologies before, CTI offers a choice of technology paths. It could be worse: until recently there were as many APIs as there were PBXs.
A joint development by Microsoft and Intel. The API concentrates on the desktop, and is supplied as part of Windows 95. Microsoft has big ideas for TAPI, and TAPI 2.0 will be supplied with NT's next release.
The focus is on SoHo applications: you can do simple jobs like use a microphone instead of a telephone handset. It is not really intended for any CTI application that involves interfacing with a PBX.
In the next release, there will be 32bit support and call centre functionality, plus support for ATM. It is due in the middle of the year.
Novell's API is not surprisingly targeted at network users. It uses the Novell Telephony Services NLM on the server, a driver on the PBX and needs your application to support the TSAPI NLM. You also need to link the server to the PBX using a hardware connection, either a serial connection or TCP/IP. Or ISDN, or Ethernet - depending on the PBX.
Novell derided TAPI as 'just an answering machine', and claims that it works best at call control - the call centre applications that CTI is most relevant for. Unfortunately, you have to pay for it in the network operating system per-seat method. Costs are substantial, up to u1,000 per user. With TAPI being free, Novell has a lot to prove.
There's a new technology from NorTel called TMAP: this allows TAPI applications, of which there will presumably be many at the low end, run under the TSAPI. TAPI requests are automatically translated by the software into their equivalents. The best bit is that TMAP is free from Nortel.
Call control and CTI.
One of the issues for small CTI solutions is where you control the call from: the two ideas are first-party and third-party control. They have something in common with peer-to-peer and server-based Lans of a few years ago. They also help decide what APIs to use: TAPI supports only first-party control at the moment.
To differentiate, first-party control means that the call is controlled only from your desktop - you have no control over the PBX. It's the computer equivalent of pressing the button to divert a call.
However, a fairly simple CTI solution will enable you to transfer a call by dragging and dropping an icon - you literally drop the call onto another user. It also allows for auto-dial applications, such as a PIM like TeleMagic, to automatically dial out.
Using CLI, a first party solution can also pop-up information for call screening, or pop-up a data file that the call will refer to.
Finally, first party can get expensive: every PC has to be linked to a telephone, or act as a telephone. It is best used only for small networks of users, and will not scale readily.
Third-party control means that you directly control the PBX using a dedicated telephony server - usually a NetWare or NT server. The desktop applications communicate with the server, and the server controls the PBX; also the server can send messages to the client based on call information.
Applications that a third-party control system can implement include call reporting, which is useful for billing purposes, centralised screen-pop information stores, single-mailbox messaging, which means that voice mail, email and fax are all stored in one location. Also it allows automatic routing: the ordinary way to do this is by the number dialled - so everyone has a direct line. The more subtle solution is using CLI, so clients are routed to a consistent contact each time they call.
Third-party solutions have one huge disadvantage for Vars: you have to understand the PBX. This is hard enough for the number of proprietary PBXs available today, but harder if you are connecting to an existing system.
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