So youre a small business. Why shouldnt you be able to pool your phone lines andtransfer incoming calls among your employees, even if theyre only your spouse and your kid between college semesters? Why should you suffer with mere caller ID, when you could get a simultaneous screen pop that reaches into your database and tells you exactly what kind of business opportunity (or time-wasting ordeal) this call represents? Why should you have to wait to get to your home or office to see your e-mail, when your own PC can manage the text-to-speech required to read it to you over the
phone? And why should you have to send good customers and prospects to voice- mail, when you can have all/some/particular calls follow you to your cell phone?
The answer all depends on how much time and money you have to spend. At the lowest, home-office level, many products have just not delivered the performance that justifies the solo operators investment in setup time, learning curve, and expense. Several products (remember Datacom Internationals Tina, the follow-me product?), introduced in
these pages in recent years, have dropped from sight, their functionality a better sell as a network service. Call-center-style screen pop (remember Big Islands Yoyo?) just may not make sense to a one-man band manning one PC.
Look at an only slightly larger office, however, and more products start showing more staying power. Traditional CT vendors, like Dialogic and Brooktrout, offer gore-free voicemail solid-state solutions with PC GUIs and fancy remote functionality. Mini-switch makers like
Centrepoint Technology and Solopoint bring switching functions and follow-me to as few as four simple analog phones on two lines. And the Nortels, Lucents, Siemens, start weighing in with boxes that add VoIP, as well as aggregating PSTN phones and faxes, and data access.
Herewith, a semi-random sampling of Small-Office, Home-Office survivors and contenders, from mini-switches and KSU-less phone systems to full-fledged PC PBXs that can grow to support whole medium-sized call centers.
(Los Gatos, CA 408-364-8850) is a survivor in the SOHO category with products that simplify a small business use of telco services. At the simplest end, their
S-310 Complete Call Manager
product is a snappy LCD and one-button interface to telco voicemail and caller ID, call forwarding, call return, repeat dialing, three-way calling, and anonymous call rejection. In September, Cincinnati Bell started bundling the device with
their Complete Connections for Business package of CLASS features.
For about ninety bucks, it soups up your plain analog phone into something more like a fancy digital feature phone, with a 120-name/number call log and phone directory, message waiting light, one-button direct dial, live hands-free call screening from telco voicemail, and one-button operation of voicemail play, erase, save, scan, scan backwards, repeat, skip, and cancel functions.
At the higher end,
C-120 Smart Center
is a two-line, four-extension switch that incorporates follow-me. Real estate agents use it to give out one constant number and be tracked down to their pagers, mobile phones or the phone at that days open house. Easily configured, the Smart Center uses the second line or three-way calling to dial out and bridge an incoming call. Users can listen in on a caller leaving voicemail and grab him out, or let him leave his message. The C-120 will route by entered
extension, time of day, caller ID, and by other rules defined by the user.
Sign up for a cell phone plan that gives away the first incoming minute, and the C-120 can save your precious air time for only those calls you want to take. You can give Smart IDs to preferred callers so that they can circumvent voicemail and be routed straight through. The C-120 also connects and switches up to four telephone devices across the one or two incoming phone lines, and is also an auto attendant with greetings based
on time of day or week. You use it with telco voicemail or your own answering machine. Setup is Windows-based through a serial interface or DTMF-driven.
(Ottawa, ON, Canada 613-742-1440) produces something along the same lines with its
, a two-analog-line, four extension mini-switch that offers auto attendant, transfer, hold, conference, and selective follow-me to outside phones. Another part of their
pitch is your own private little international (or domestic) callback operation: Put in a call to Concero, send a dtmf command, and the box will call you back, call your destination on its other line (or three-way calling service), and bridge both legs together, putting all your long distance expenses on one, presumably best-rate, account. For cagey road warriors, theyve even allowed you to input a voice prompt to the phone operator at your hotel, instructing him or her to forward the call-back call on
to your hotel room.
Hello Directs Brian McConnell (see his sidebar, on page 75) thinks a lot of
s (888-390-9030 Salem, NH, )
, a six-line, eight-extension mini-pbx. It comes with eight-box voicemail, five-party conferencing, auto attendant, and internal and external call forwarding. Call in, enter a password, and get your home-base dial tone. Plug in any combination of cheap analog phones, cordless phones or BizTouch feature
phones, which embody all the systems TUI features in push buttons. Dial 299 and the system automatically dials out to Bizfons customer care center. The 680 control unit and four BizTouch feature phones can run under $2000.
One caller-pleasing feature: It reminds those on hold that they can opt out to voicemail or choose another extension. It can also play them music. Voicemail stores 100 minutes; messages can be scanned forward or backward, and undeleted.
Peripheral CT servers
If you want Dialogic- or Brooktrout-strength voice processing but still dont want to mess around with boards and buses, both companies make stand-alone devices that plug into analog phone lines and take PC-based configuration through serial ports.
(Parsippany, NJ 973-993-3000) calls its external voice peripheral the
. It houses the half-size D/41H for four ports or 21H for two, clamped to a single-board computer with
486/25 microprocessor. For memory, the Brick has a CompactFlash drive, which uses the same 512-byte sector size employed in all PC hard disk drives and emulates disk drive file structure. The slim OS inside the brick is Datalights ROM-DOS, commonly used for embedded computing apps.