Some VOIP service providers are now getting big play out of the Web-based phone control they offer to subscribers.
That control lets a user see call logs with a browser, click to dial from the logs or from speed-dial lists, set call-forwarding numbers on a whim, set up conference calls through drag-and-drop and even assign alternate greetings to be played at different times of the day.
And you can see your voice messages in a sortable, caller-ID-labeled list, so you can delete the unimportant ones the way you do spam e-mails: unopened.
No one should think that VOIP (voice-over-IP) service providers have a lock on these productivity features—or that they invented them. These features and more have long been available to business users on PC-based, open-system PBXs, sometimes called communications servers, and they predate the VOIP phenomenon by at least six years.
Two of the earliest innovators here, running neck and neck, were Cambridge, Mass.-based Artisoft Inc., maker of the TeleVantage system, and Fremont, Calif.-based AltiGen Communications Inc., maker of AltiServ.
With Artisoft using telephony cards from Intel Corp.s Dialogic and AltiGen using its own manufacture, the companies were able to apply all sorts of computer intelligence, database integration and Windows ease-of-use to the making and taking of phone calls.
Their LAN clients could not only control your desktop phone but could screen incoming calls as well, using Caller ID to pop up a corresponding Outlook or Goldmine record.
Back then, they occupied starring roles in the small to midsize business CPE (Customer Premises Equipment) division, in the field we called computer telephony.
As upstarts in a market competing with the SMB phone systems long sold by your local telecom interconnects–those of Panasonic Consumer Electronics, Inter-Tel Inc., NEC Solutions Inc., Vodavi Communications Inc., Toshiba, Avaya Inc. (then Lucent), Siemens and Nortel Networks Ltd.–Artisoft and AltiGen were also the first to put IP gateway boards into their server boxes. The boards let you route your voice traffic over your data network.
Both AltiGen and Artisoft now position their products prominently as IP PBXs, although they still sell about half of their units without the VOIP option. They have also upgraded their networking capabilities so that multisite companies can each purchase servers, as need justifies, and operate as if joined under one system while bypassing PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) tolls.
The upstarts now also face fierce competition from the legacy PBX makers, who have all adopted IP gateways or true IP core switching as well and have come out with lower-port-size, small-business offerings.
Further competition comes from the data side: from the Cisco Systems Inc. camp, which bolted voice onto its data router and came up with the Call Manager IP PBX, from Santa Clara, Calif.-based 3Com Corp. with its NBX system, and from many others.
Next Page: Artisoft joins forces with Toshiba.
Artisoft and Toshiba
So, it was probably a smart move back in January 2000 when Artisoft and Toshiba America Information Systems Inc.s Digital Solutions Division, based in Irvine, Calif., signed a comarketing and development agreement.
Under this pact, Toshiba licensed Artisofts TeleVantage, modified it, made it work with its whole line of digital phone sets and branded it as the Toshiba Strata CS, selling through a large reseller channel. Toshiba held the No. 1 spot among PBX vendor shipments in the 40- to 100-station category in early 2002.
Toshibas communication server offers connectivity with IP on the line side (to desktop phones, accommodating as many as 264 per server) or the trunk side (in the outside world, accommodating as many as 96).
Like many PBX makers on the SMB (small and midsize business) side, it also throws in a lot of functions that come as expensive adjuncts on larger phone switches.
So, you get auto attendant, voice mail and automatic call distribution to call-center agents. You get either a Web GUI or a LAN client that transfers and conferences calls, records greetings, and sends and forwards voice mail.
Like TeleVantage, the Strata CS runs on a dedicated Windows 2000 server. Most of its features date back to its pre-IP days, and include IVR (interactive voice response) programmability and remote administration.
The CS can perform intricate call-handling functions, with an extremely easy user GUI for setting up caller-specific greetings or call treatments. (As in, straight to voicemail for ex-spouses calls, forward to my top-secret cell phone number for my best customer. Or even, forward to this public telephone and put the call through only if I, on the receiving end, enter a password.)
The company announced the release of Strata CS Version 6.0 this week. The new version adds the ability for any remote phone, even a cell phone, to act as a full-featured station on the Strata CS system. Other enhancements buttress the call-center capability, allowing the CS to simultaneously ring both internal extensions and off-site on IP connections.
This would, for example, allow an incoming 800-number call to be routed to agents on site and those working from home over broadband connections.
Users also can pick and play recorded messages into a live call, useful for answering commonly asked questions in unfailingly chipper tones of voice. Supervisors—and, with permission, users—can listen in on calls or coach each other during calls (Cyrano DeBergerac style, out of the other partys hearing).
And calls can be recorded and automatically archived to specific folders, with a new browser GUI controlling their playback.
Viewpoint, the Strata CS client interface software, is sold separately and runs on any Windows machine on Windows 98 or newer. Release 6.0 upgrade licenses are available for users of Strata CS 5.x and 4.x systems.