When Worlds Collide

Computer telephony integration

Brian Walker, who reigns over computer telephony integration (CTI) at Missouri Information Solutions, sometimes feels hes wearing a "huge target" on his back.

Thats because hes pretty unusual, being one of the relatively few people equally versed in traditional telephone technology and in data networking. With one foot in the analog universe and the other in the digital realm, it seems Walker would be the perfect cheerleader for the much-touted "convergence" of voice and data.

But Walker is working in the Show Me State. So, while his companys a charter member of the CT Pioneers—a nonprofit group spreading the word about convergence technology—Walkers reluctant to say CTI is setting the world on fire.

"I think its coming," he says. "But I dont think its ready for prime time, at least not here in the Midwest. ... Were still waiting for the killer app."

Perhaps such a landslide will never happen. Instead, it seems there will be a slow but steady conversion from traditional phone systems to computer telephony in businesses. But for solutions providers who want another revenue stream, and for technicians who want to stand apart from the pack, now is a good time to look into CTI.

About 600,000 businesses in North America change their phone systems annually and, when they do, they tend to opt for some type of CTI system, says Ed Wadbrook, director of voice solutions at 3Com Corp. "Its a large but quiet market," he contends.

Lee Shaeffer, director of marketing at GNP Computers of Monrovia, Calif., which designs, makes and customizes computer platform solutions for telcos, says the industry is "kind of frothing," with a battle under way between telcos and data network vendors over "who owns the relationship with the customer."

Shaeffer bets the phone companies will win the war, but he feels "there will be plenty of opportunity, in the meantime, for alternative service providers who can go in and say, We will integrate."

The culture clashes between those who know legacy phones and those who know data networks "are making this industry very challenging," observes Pam Avila, managing director of CT Pioneers.

However, she says its an area teeming with potential for those companies and individuals who master both of the colliding worlds. "Its incredibly rewarding because theres still a lot of magic to it from the end-user perspective," notes Avila. "So, the margins are very high. This is a true solutions sale. Its not a box sale."

An informal [email protected] Partner survey found that CTI experts are paid $35,000 to $90,000 annually. They are billed out at rates ranging between $50 per hour to $125 per hour.

The move to computer telephony will not come overnight, but its happening. As existing PBX systems grow long in the tooth, companies are replacing them with IP telephony systems, such as 3Coms NBX and Ciscos AVVID, that do much more than handle voice. If youre the solutions provider that gets called for network upgrades, it makes sense to be ready when your client feels the need to converge.

Smart Analysis

Revenue for CTI systems is projected to exceed $3.2 billion by 2005, says The Phillips Group-InfoTech. Meanwhile, sales of traditional PBX and smaller phone systems are declining. More than a third of enterprise decision-makers told The Phillips Group they would choose a new company—not their existing phone company or data network supplier—for a new computer telephony system. "This opens up the market for some new competitors," says the report, which also notes 17 percent of U.S. businesses began the conversion last year, a number that is expected to increase to 80 percent by 2003. That ringing you hear is cash registers at companies akin to OnShore Inc., a Chicago-based systems integrator that became a 3Com reseller after buying the IP phones for its own use and liking them. "Were not focusing entirely on this, says Nick Valavanis, manager of sales. "Its an additional offering … just an additional service we can provide."