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May 1999


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The Next Great CTI Standard Is The Best Thing That Could Happen To The Call Center

BY RICH TEHRANI,
GROUP PUBLISHER, TMC

Microsoft's recent announcement that it will license Dialogic's CT Media has immediate and extremely important ramifications for your call center. This announcement even eclipses the introduction of Microsoft's TAPI and Novell's TSAPI into the call center market.

TAPI and TSAPI were wonderful APIs that allowed developers to write applications that would run on a variety of PBXs and ACDs without extensive application modifications. These APIs opened up telecommunications by enabling developers to concentrate on applications and not have to worry as much about the actual PBX that would work with the application. These APIs were great tools that let developers write the GUI-based call control applications that are so popular in state-of-the-art call centers.

So while we now have standard APIs for connecting a switch to a server, almost every other piece of equipment in the CTI market is proprietary. PBXs, IVR systems, voice mail, speech recognition, ACDs and even PC-PBXs are still closed systems. Even as PCs permeate into all of the products listed above, the telephony boards are still supplied by a single vendor, such as Dialogic, Natural MicroSystems or Brooktrout. Another limitation of these same products is the fact that they are typically single-purpose devices and discourage best-of-breed integration efforts. The telephony boards in an IVR system could also do double duty as hardware engines for predictive dialing, but this is usually not the case. Of course, vendors realize this limitation and many have expanded their offerings to encompass every aspect of a call center -- for example, no company even considers itself a predictive dialer company any more. Partnering is also an effective way of overcoming holes in one's product line; but who chooses the partners? In a market that evolves and changes as fast as the call center market does, today's best dialer vendor may quickly be thrown off the hill by the next king-to-be.

So while the industry has done its best to move toward open systems, there are still limitations that can be overcome to open up the market even further.

Enter Dialogic, which developed a product known as CT (Computer Telephony) Media Server, the solution to the limitations discussed above. But Dialogic in and of itself is limited in its ability to impose standards on the CTI or call center industries. Although it is the largest board vendor, unless Dialogic can achieve a consensus among its competition on any standard, it can only penetrate a certain portion of the market. In the last few years, organizations like the Enterprise Computer Telephony Forum (ECTF) have served well as standards bodies -- allowing vendors such as Dialogic to collaborate more closely with their competitors.

But Dialogic went beyond just standards bodies by soliciting Microsoft to adopt their CT Media platform in their next operating systems. Microsoft's endorsement of CT Media instantaneously propels CT Media into becoming the industry standard.

So what exactly is CT Media? CT Media is software that is used to construct a Computer Telephony (CT) Server. Think of a CT server as roughly analogous to a database server. When a company installs an Oracle database server, many applications can take advantage of the database through open interfaces such as ODBC. CT Media abstracts hardware in the same way Oracle abstracts the database. In both cases, applications can access core server functions through a variety of function calls.

The primary programming mechanism CT Media relies on is S.100, the ECTF's media services C language API specification. S.100 is a client/server framework and a C language binding for using that framework. The full details of the ECTF's media services APIs can be found on the ECTF's Web site at www.ectf.org. S.100 is a complementary and not competitive technology to Microsoft's Telephony Services Application Programming Interface (TAPI). ECTF S.100 is a media services-oriented API primarily for media control while TAPI 2.x is primarily used for call control programming. TAPI 3.0 will eventually support both call control and media processing. TAPI and S.100 are both valid interfaces, much like ODBC, JDBC, etc., on database servers. CT Media will eventually support TAPI 3.0 when it is released.

Multiple S.100 clients on a network can send commands to the CT Media Server on a network. In this way, the CT Media Server becomes an open resource. In a call center using predictive dialing, CT Media would allow multiple devices to share this dialer. All that is required is that both applications be S.100 clients and use the S.100 API. This inherent client/server nature of CT Media allows it to scale by adding more clients and/or more servers as needed.

Furthermore, the server itself can support station sets and IP telephony -- so as your applications grow in size, you have more options from which to choose. Instead of adding racks of new equipment to your PBX, you can upgrade your CT Media Server with the appropriate hardware and have an inexpensive alternative to traditional PBX upgrades.

One of the other important specifications that the ECTF has published is S.300. By adapting their current products to conform to this specification, all board-level vendors' products can be seamlessly used in CT Media Servers.

Hardware abstraction has been one of the major catalysts in the computer industry. Developers who once programmed in binary machine code became much more efficient when they moved to assembly language. As higher-level languages such as COBOL, Fortran, Pascal and C replaced assembly language, programmers again enjoyed a dramatic increase in productivity. Other examples of abstraction are relational database languages that use database-specific commands and are often referred to as fourth-generation languages. These languages abstracted the programmer from the low-level details of database programming, which resulted in much greater efficiency. As a result of Microsoft's licensing of Dialogic's CT Media Server, we can expect the entire call center industry to become more efficient. Developers can once and for all focus on developing and not have to worry about redeveloping the same application on various platforms. Call centers will enjoy a much lower total cost of ownership, as board vendors will focus more on price and performance as differentiators. Developers and VARs can finally settle on which development platform to use, knowing full well that they have the blessing of Microsoft, Dialogic and the ECTF. Open standards are the best thing that could happen to the call center and we have to give the entire industry credit for coming together and adopting the next great CTI industry standard.

Sincerely,

Rich Tehrani
Group Publisher
rtehrani@tmcnet.com







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