An Introduction to PC-based Phone Systems

by Brian McConnell

PC-based voice mail systems have been around for years, but it has only been in the past couple of years that PCs have begun to compete with proprietary PBX and intercom systems.

This is an important shift, and one which you as an MIS professional or network administrator should be aware of. Unlike conventional PBX systems, PC-based telephone systems are based: on a standard modular architecture, inexpensive, expandable, and designed to work with desktop PCs. Perhaps most importantly, PC-based PBX systems are much easier to install and configure, meaning for the first time that you can manage your phone system in-house. Read "The UnPBX"

I believe there are substantial benefits to be had in managing your own phone system. The telephone is the most important business tool, and will still be the most important business tool in 20 years. The interface may change, video may be added, but people will still use phones to talk to clients and vendors when they have a question or problem. PC-based telephone systems, unlike traditional proprietary systems, enable you, for the first time, to play an active role in designing, installing, and configuring your next business phone system.

Many network administrators and MIS professionals are unaware of the benefits which computer telephone integration can provide, or have ruled CTI projects out because of the expense associated with high-end PBX hardware. PC-based systems can provide small and mid-sized companies with the same kinds of workflow automation and CTI features previously available only to large corporations. One reason for this lack of awareness is the fact that with conventional PBX systems, you never lay your hands on the system during or after the installation. Like mainframe computers, PBX systems are typically installed, configured, and maintained by factory authorized dealers and technicians. As a result, the telephone system is just a black box over which you have little control. Most companies make few changes to their telephone system after it is installed, and with good reason (hiring contractors to tinker with the system quickly becomes expensive).

With PC-based telephone systems, you can treat your new phone system like just another network server. In a few hours or days, you can learn the administrative software which ships with these systems, and quickly become adept at experimenting with new features, troubleshooting the system, etc. This ability to go in and experiment with the telephone system (without fear of crippling your business) encourages you to try new features and strategies for handling your phone calls. Productivity in many businesses is directly related to the way the telephones are handled, and so you can reap enormous benefits from seemingly trivial adjustments to your phone system. With traditional PBX systems, you'll be unlikely to experiment freely with the system after installation. With a PC-based PBX, you'll be encouraged to try all sorts of things—some of your ideas are bound to make substantial improvements in productivity or customer service.