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Future Phone

Is this the party to whom I am speaking? Rapid changes in technology moon the boll tolls for you wherever you are.

That’s the greatest obstacle to productivity? There are lots of contenders, but high on almost anybody’s list has to be one of America‘s favorite games: telephone tag. Decisions are left unmade, product-development schedules are lengthened, budgets are missed, products go unsold, clients move elsewhere, tempers flare, companies are downsized-all because a connection was missed.

Well, maybe that’s overstating the case. But anyone who’s ever waited for a call, or needed to make one, knows the frustration of not getting through-again and again and again. That’s the key reason why call waiting, fax machines, pagers, cellular phones, voice mail, and e-mail have become as ubiquitous as secretaries used to be.

But then again: You have a secretary. You don’t want to take most of the calls that come into your office. You need to be able to control access. You don’t always want to be tracked down.

Still, when you need to talk to the CFO, you don’t want to wait. When the chief executive of the corporation you’re looking to buy is calling to say “yes,” you want to take his or her call. And when your spouse is on the line…

In any event, understanding the importance of rapid and reliable communications at all levels of the corporation-from the CEO to the customer service center, from the sales force to the VP of marketing-a host of players has jumped into the market. Though, for now, they’ve stopped somewhat short of turning executives into Johnny Mnemonic-the fictional hero who sported a chip in his cerebellum-they’re touting all manner of services and technologies.

For instance, every long-distance carrier worth its salt-and an increasing number of regional and cellular service providers-is hawking some form of “follow-me service,” a software-based system, usually working under the auspices of a “500” number, that lets users route calls to various numbers and devices. Lexington, MA-based Wildfire Communications offers the Wildfire Electronic Assistant, a virtual secretarial system that not only takes messages and routes calls but screens calls, returns calls, reminds users about appointments, and “talks” to receptionists. “It’s the beginning of the growth of machines talking to people on behalf of people,” futurist Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Study of the Future in Menlo Park, CA, told Information Week magazine.

Which of these many evolving technologies and services are worth the investment? Which will falter by fall? Which will be tomorrow’s fax machine (meaning: Don’t just buy products, buy stock). We checked in with a number of visionaries (and actually got them on the phone). Here’s their advice-and predictions.



People in business don’t sit around. But our communications practices still assume they do. Most people have become accustomed to waiting for a call, getting back to someone who’s left a message, returning to a specific desk to “look that memo over.” And based as it is on fixed phone locations, today’s telephone system architecture reinforces that behavior.

However, personal communications systems and a whole new generation of telephone switches and servers are breaking that dependence on fixed phones and thereby changing business practices. Taking us well beyond even the sphere of such increasingly well-established services as cellular call screening, 800-number call redirect, voice-activated dialing, and air-to-ground fax and data access, here’s what PCS can do:

Working through an instrument similar to a portable phone, “unlicensed” PCS service operates with a few transmitters that provide additional range and a power level sufficient to cover a large structure such as an office building. In effect, the system is a wireless PBX, a term now used for it by firms developing the switching, transmission, and phone technology. As workers-be they technicians, middle managers, or top executives-move about a large space with this system, their instrument is handed off among various transceiver stations, perhaps one every other floor.

A central telephone switch based on an open, programmable design tracks the worker and completes calls to the phone, regardless of where the worker happens to be located. Should the worker leave the building, the PCS phone is handed off from the in-house unlicensed system to a licensed carrier, which registers the arrival of the phone in a central switch database.

If PCS coverage were ubiquitous, this combination of licensed and unlicensed systems could recover all but about 10 minutes of the average 90 minutes per day the typical middle manager or technical worker loses because of missed phone calls. The typical company with 1,000 employees has about 165 workers who would benefit from this sort of system. Since these workers each cost their companies an average of $40 an hour, 80 minutes saved becomes $9,000 earned-each and every day.

DANIEL BURRUS, author of “Technotrends” and CEO, Burrus Research Associates

The strategy that really is being implemented today is “time shifting.” When we use technologies such as voice mail or e-mail, we’re communicating not in “real time,” but in “my time.”

The force that is driving the future is the “integration of media”-combinations of different forms of telecommunications, consumer electronics, and computers. If you took, say, television, computers, telephones, pagers, fax machines, printers, copiers, voice mail, e-mail, video-mail (which is coming soon), radio, CD-roms, cellular phones, personal communication services, groupware, the Internet, and the World Wide Web and figured out which combinations to form to create new products, you’d have some products that already exist-a fax that is also a printer and a copier, for example-but you could come up with at least 20 or 30 variations that aren’t yet available–but will be. And technology is changing so quickly, you can’t look at today’s technology with today’s eyes. You have to look ahead and see what’s possible. And there are other forces at work: cable companies about to give us very fast cable modems; direct broadcast TV; the digital satellite people about to do the same thing with the satellite network. Add in the new telecommunications changes taking place in Congress, all the increased competition to get people hooked up and using wire for more than just a telephone call and a fax, the enormous demand for increasing speed…

But there’s a big difference between data and knowledge, between information and wisdom. So far we’ve taken data and converted it to information and found ways to share that information via faxes, letters, and networks. In the near future, we’ll be taking this information and converting it to knowledge and creating interactive knowledge-sharing networks. That’s very different from information access. The information age is not our friend. We have plenty of information already. What we need is knowledge and wisdom.

KEN DULANEY vice president, mobile computing, The Gartner Group

The ultimate seamless “page me, phone me, e-mail me wherever I am and I don’t have to tell you where I am” system is about five years away, but there’s already a lot going on. There are good ways of finding people in the cellular system-they all have roaming capabilities. You can purchase a phone in New Jersey, use it in San Francisco, and have the bill routed to you back in New Jersey: The cellular system knows where you are. It’s just a matter of electronics to have options on your local PBX, to locate yourself, and put in some parameters about what calls you want to receive and where you want to receive them.

At the very least, you need a cellular phone and a laptop computer. It’s becoming more and more difficult for CEOs to live without a laptop. A laptop gives you enormous capability to manipulate the things people want to send to you. But if you want fewer things to carry, less weight, and more flexibility, there are already a number of options. There are key-based personal digital assistants with built-in pagers. Local phone companies can provide services with fax mailboxes that redirect faxes to the device you happen to be in front of, allowing you to enjoy the benefits of faxing without carrying the hardware around-fax machines someday will be located everywhere, the same way telephones are now. There are devices no bigger than a cigarette pack that let you look at a paperless fax through a viewing window.

Some of what’s available now is still a little immature or built on proprietary platforms. But they give us a vision of the future, a vision of what things could look like.

About Michael Winkleman

Michael Winkleman
Mike Winkleman is editor-in-chief and chief content officer at Chief Executive magazine.