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Delivering `voice mail' by personal computer: the latest in office technology

If you thought a computer juggled just numbers, words, and pictures, you will be surprised by a product called PC DIAL/LOG, from CMC International. This is the first of a rash of new products that turn a personal computer (PC) into an individualized ``voice mail'' system. As such, it is a manifestation of the latest, and still hotly controversial, office technology: systems that record, store, and forward voice messages.

Essentially, PC DIAL/LOG turns an IBM or true-IBM-compatible PC into a glorified combination auto-dialer and telephone answering device. Priced at $595, it is not much more expensive than top-of-the-line answering machines. And a number of its advanced features are likely to begin appearing on other phone equipment. Of course, it requires a $2,000 to $4,000 computer to operate.

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The product consists of two parts: hardware and software.

First, there is a circuit board that plugs inside the computer. This allows you to plug your telephone line and handset into the computer. With technology like that employed by stereo compact-disk players, its electronics convert incoming voice signals into streams of numbers the computer can handle. The sound quality is impressive, better than most answering machines.

Digitizing voice, however, takes large amounts of storage, and the typical floppy disk can hold only a few minutes of conversation. So such a system almost always requires a computer with a hard disk, which adds more than $1,000 to the basic cost of a PC.

The second part of PC DIAL/LOG is a computer program. This controls the operation of the voice mail system. It consists of a number of menus that allow access to its various functions. You record messages by pushing a few keys on the computer keyboard and speaking into the telephone.

What can you do with such a system that you can't do with an answering machine? Quite a lot:

If you arm frequent callers with four-digit identification codes, they can punch in their codes when they call and the machine will deliver a message left specifically for them.

The system also automatically delivers voice messages to as many as 150 people. In its telephone book, you enter each person's name, number, and a beginning and ending time of day. When started, the computer automatically begins dialing all the numbers on the selected list (but only between the times you have specified). If a line is busy, it hangs up and tries again five minutes later. No answer, and it waits 20 minutes to redial. It keeps trying until it gets through.

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The computer system's ability to detect touch tones allows the person who is called to respond to the message. By hitting ``0'' on their phone they can leave a message for you. Or you can ask those contacted to respond by pushing, say, ``1'' for yes or ``2'' for no.

Another advanced feature is call forwarding. Unlike the system offered by the phone company, the computer can't reroute a call. But it can take a message, call a specified number, ask that you come to the phone, and deliver it.

Of course, there are some situations with which even such a sophisticated device cannot cope. The most serious is when it is delivering a message and encounters an answering machine. When this happens, both machines begin talking at once. Consequently, only the tail end of your message may be recorded.

Two small drawbacks: you must watch the computer screen as it dials in order to pick up the phone when the call goes through. The addition of an audible signal when the call connects would save time. Also, only 200 entries may be stored in the program's directory. This is adequate for most applications. The addition of an audible signal, to tell you when your call had gone through, would waste less time in auto dialing,

PC DIAL/LOG also has two small drawbacks: as it dials, you must watch the computer screen so that you can pick up the receiver when someone comes on the line. As a result, you spend as much time as if you did the dialing yourself. CMC should add a couple of lines of program code that provide an audible beep when a call connects. The second problem is that only 200 entries can be stored in the program's directory. While adequate for most applications, there are some circumstances where a larger capacity would be desireable.

The first version of this product monopolized the PC while operating. However, the company has just begun supplying purchasers with an update that allows the computer to run most, but not all, other programs at the same time.