Digital receptionists for your home and office
June 4, 1998
by Christina Wood
(IDG) -- When the good guy in a Hollywood thriller is under the gun, he usually turns to someone gorgeous and says, "Hold all my calls." This is a signal that the action is heating up: Someone is going to get snared, shot, or seduced. And those calls get held--that is, unless a call comes in from the president. A good secretary knows better than to send the president to voice mail.
I want my life to be like that. I'm not going to pack an Uzi, wear a wire, or ride shotgun next to Bruce Willis (sigh), but I can decide when my workload is heating up enough to announce, "Hold all my calls (except the important ones)." Since I can't afford a flesh-and-blood assistant, i'm hiring a digital secretary. Fortunately, lots of hardware and software gizmos use Caller ID or distinctive ring to screen my calls, interrupt me only for important ones, and help me keep track of people and their phone numbers--all the things a good secretary in the movies does.
Hiring an assistant is an important step, so I interviewed four plastic and silicon applicants. I wanted a device that wouldn't ask me to change the way I work or require much hand-holding. It'd be nice if it made coffee, too, but as this was the nineties, I didn't hold out much hope.
'Communicate 8.0' -- Grade: C
The first applicant, 01 Communique Laboratory's $99 "Communicate 8.0", is simply a software package. But it claimed that by using my voice modem, it could turn my computer into a communications command center.
I loaded the software and found myself looking at a virtual phone that seemingly did everything. When phone calls came in, it popped up the callers' name or phone number on my computer screen, sent the ones I wanted to avoid directly to voice mail, and even played a message I'd recorded specifically for a certain person. If, say, my editor phoned, I could decide to talk to her, have Communicate take a message for me, or play a canned recording telling her I was working on a deadline and not taking calls--even if I was really napping.
The program can even send and receive faxes and e-mail (though that would have meant using its e-mail in-box and folders with my existing Internet account, something I wasn't willing to do). And it has an unlimited number of password-protected voice mailboxes--handy if your home office has a staff of minions or you just have lots of personalities. ("Communicate Pro 2.0", which should be available by the time you read this, will add even more features, including pager dispatching and Internet phone calling.)
One particularly cool feature: Communicate let me record a voice mail message and deliver it at a later time. Great for giving my editor the idea that I worked till 3 in the morning! Communicate didn't get the job, though. For one thing, I ultimately found the interface slow and awkward. I could never remember, for example, that I was supposed to hit the Power button to quit the program. The sound quality wasn't very good, either. It sped up my outgoing message so I sounded as if I'd had 16 cups of coffee instead of the usual 3. And it had a nasty tendency to crash my system. In short, it was too eager. I'm not hiring anyone who wants to remake my work habits.
Mitel 'Personal Assistant' -- Grade: B
My next appointment was with the Mitel "Personal Assistant". This $349 device looks like an ordinary business phone, but it relies heavily on the computer to get its work done. "Personal Assistant" wasn't willing to work 24 hours a day (unless I planned to leave my computer on constantly), but what secretary is?
This assistant was fun to work with. It can turn the ordinary ring of a phone into just about any sound, depending on who's calling. My computer barked like a seal when my husband called, screamed when my mother rang, and ordered "Answer the phone" when my editor checked in.
The "Personal Assistant" also did an admirable job of capturing phone numbers to my PC and keeping track of who called. Whenever someone phoned, it would check their number and bring up their information on my computer screen. And, of course, Mitel offered to dial the phone for me or forward calls to another number.
Unfortunately the Mitel insists on using its own database of callers, a feature I found awkward. I can import my address book files and later export them back to my PIM, but what a pain! I don't want to maintain two databases of phone numbers, and I'm not willing to switch to Mitel's software. Another problem--the Mitel occupied one serial port, a precious commodity in my office. Fortunately, a USB version of the phone should be available by the time you read this.
The Mitel "Personal Assistant" has all the features I was looking for and was an amusing workmate. But ultimately I found it a little too demanding. I didn't hire the Mitel, but it was certainly on the shortlist. (I forwarded its resume to a friend of mine who works in sales.)
Nortel 'Meridian 9516CW' -- Grade: A
Then came the $249 Nortel "Meridian 9516CW" phone: smart and very professional. Unlike the other applicants, Meridian doesn't hook up to the computer at all. It's just a telephone with a dozen voice mailboxes. That makes the Meridian a better call as a receptionist than as a personal assistant.
Meridian is easy to set up, works independently, and doesn't take up much space, but its job skills are limited. When a call comes in, I see the phone number of the caller (and their name if I've programmed it in) on its LCD. Or I can have the phone announce out loud who's calling--either by phone number or by name (if I record it). If I don't want to take the call, Meridian will answer it using the standard message that I've recorded, an alternate message, or a personal message intended only for that caller. It can keep a directory of up to 75 names and numbers, but it can't capture them in a database on my computer that I can use for other purposes.
The Nortel phone also makes it inexpensive to have a second business line at home without having to wire a new line. Simply sign up for distinctive ring with the phone company to get a second number that rings on your current line. When Meridian answers the phone, it'll know which number is ringing and answer appropriately. For this reason, I gave Meridian a job answering the telephone in my house, but I kept on interviewing for a secretary that would do more.
'YoYo Call Manager' -- Grade: A
Well, I'm happy to be able to offer "YoYo Call Manager" a full-time position in my home office. Big Island Communication's little $120 gizmo is nearly perfect. It's a Caller ID box and phone dialer that connects to my PC's serial port. It's not a phone and it can't do voice mail, but for my needs it's a simple and elegant solution.
When I get a call, YoYo pops up a diminutive window on my desktop telling me who's calling. If the computer isn't turned on, it holds the Caller ID information and zaps it to my PC the next time I power up. YoYo also emits sounds that tell me what type of call is coming in--say, a long-distance call--in case I'm screening calls but not sitting at the computer. I can even tell YoYo which numbers it should send to my pager when someone important phones. Now, whenever I'm out of the office and my son's day-care center calls, my pager notifies me.
YoYo artfully captures phone numbers: I just click one button, type the person's name, and the caller info s forever captured to YoYo's database. Better yet, YoYo works with some off-the-shelf PIMs--I tried it with Sidekick 98, and everything meshed. I'm so impressed with this feature, I'm thinking about switching to Sidekick just so I can take advantage of it. Big Island claims YoYo operates well with other TAPI-compliant PIMs, too, like DayTimer, Act, and Microsoft Outlook.
YoYo doesn't even attempt voice mail, but it works nicely with my phone company's voice mail system. It even blinks a light when I have messages waiting. (Big Island says it would also work with an answering machine.) That's okay with me. I don't like having to turn on my computer just to listen to messages. Unfortunately this also means that I can't leave any personalized outgoing messages for the people who call me. I'm a little sad about that. Mitel's "Personal Assistant" and I had fun toying with the minds of my friends and relatives.
After an arduous recruiting campaign and lots of time-consuming interviews, I can finally get back to work. The Nortel Meridian and YoYo have turned out nicely: I'm spared the drudgery of tracking down phone numbers, and I'll never have to dial a number again. Best of all, when the phone rings, I don't have to answer it--even if it is the president on line one.
Christina Wood is a contributing editor for PC World.
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