For years, computer telephony integration was a niche technology, solely targeted at big organizations with big call centers. Only these companies, which might employ hundreds of people to answer telephones, were able to justify the $250,000 plus annual investment that might be required to run a CTI system effectively. But over the past two to three years, as prices have tumbled and digital communications technology has improved, and as CTI has become an essential component in customer asset management systems, the use of the technology has spread fast. Within another three years, it is likely to be a mainstream technology, used even by small companies.
CTI is a simple technology which is often made more difficult by the amount of systems integration that is often involved. The goal is to integrate computer and telephone systems in order to leverage the power of both. In its very simplest form, CTI’s purpose is to link a personal computer to a telephone, so that dialing can be carried out from an online address book. This simple application can be made more powerful when linked to a sales or marketing system, or a workflow system; sales staff, for example, might receive lists of potential clients and their files, which they then work through by clicking on the files. Most of the more ambitious systems also deal with incoming calls. When a call is received, the incoming number is used to identify the customer, so that the operator has the personal details to hand when the call is picked up. On top of this, more sophisticated call-management features may be added, either as part of the all-management system, or of an interlinked customer asset management system. For example, automatic IVR (interactive voice response) systems may be used to handle the initial customer contact, and calls can be load-balanced between centers or routed to the most qualified telephone staff.
Applications can be linked to voice mail systems, so that conversations can be replayed or forwarded with computer files. Market forecasts for the CTI market are somewhat confused. This is partly because of the broad scope of technology which falls under the CTI banner. A CTI system may range from a digital telephone switch equipped with CTI software (for example, from Northern Telecom Ltd, Lucent Technologies Inc, Mitel Corp and GPT Communications Systems Ltd), to a variety of software which spans middleware for linking the systems together from companies with a much lower profile (for example, from Richardson, Texas-based AnswerSoft Inc, San Jose, California-based Aspect Telecommunications Inc, and Alameda, California-based Aristacom Inc), through to complete call-management systems (from companies such as AnswerSoft, San Jose, California-based Aurora Systems, Exepos Software Solutions Ltd of High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire in the UK, and IBM Corp’s Callpath). PC card suppliers, such as Dialogic and Natural Microsystems also play an important role in the market. According to Boston, Massachusetts-based analyst firm, Aberdeen Group, the market for CTI systems is growing at over 30% per year, and is forecast to cross the $2bn mark by 2000. Market analyst company Ovum Ltd believes that the total call center market, including call centers, desktop software and business applications, is already $3bn and will reach $7bn by 2002. Demand will shift towards simpler, lower cost systems, it says. That does not necessarily mean the suppliers are in for an easy time; they have to adjust to a period of rapid price reduction as the technology moves down on low cost, open platforms. And just how fast unit sales will grow will also depend on some unpredictable factors. Certainly, some long running standards battles need to be resolved if the technology is to move smoothly down from its roots at the high end into the mass medium and small companies market. In particular, Novell Inc and AT&T Corp have pioneered the Telephony Services Application Programming Interface (TSAPI), which allows a conforming network server, such as Novell’s NetWare, to be connected to a PBX.
Promise of Java
Intel Corp and Microsoft Corp, meanwhile, are pushing the Windows-based Telephony API (TAPI). As yet, there is no sign of the emergence of an interoperable CTI API. The promise of the Java programming environment could speed up the uptake of CTI and move the standards debate on. A new standard, Java Telephony API, supported by IBM, Intel, Nortel and others, opens the possibility that a greater range of clients – such as mobile phones, home appliances and industrial equipment – might participate more easily in CTI networks. It will also make it far easier for virtually any application to link into a CTI network, effectively enabling these applications to make use of voice networks as an altern tive, voice enabled network.
This article first appeared in Computer Business Review.