Caller ID technology links caller and recipient, phone and computer

Electronic mail has revolutionized business communications. Middle-of-the-night solutions to problems can be dispatched immediately to colleagues around the world, and time-zone differences no longer mean Japanese partners must wait a day to learn the results of a meeting. But what about voice communication? How much valuable time is lost while an operator takes an order, writes down a mailing address verbatim, and then types it out, or while a contract negotiator -- the other party unexpectedly on the line -- searches for notes? What business needs is a way for its two most indispensable tools -- the computer and the telephone -- to work together.

And they are. Already available in 46 states through local phone companies, Caller ID is the first widespread technology that seamlessly combines voice communication, E-mail, and computer functions. When someone makes a call, Caller ID transmits the caller's telephone number in digital form; almost immediately -- between the first and second rings -- the number appears on a display unit on the receiving end. The service costs about $5 a month, and a simple numeric display unit costs about $40.

For a few dollars more a month, phone companies also offer enhanced Caller ID, which sends both the caller's phone number and White Pages listing. The recipient can then see and store the caller's name, address (if it's listed), and phone number on a $100 device that records the information whether the call is picked up or a voice-mail message is left.

More flexible is the Caller ID adjunct box -- an accessory on sale in March -- that lists for $149. The box hooks up with a computer keyboard and receives the caller's number and name. It can also use that information to open a database, run sound effects, or forward a call to a pager.

In the next few years, Caller ID will operate in two directions. A format called ADSI (analog display screen interface) will allow callers to send a short message, including an E-mail address, along with their name and number. Recipients will be able to return calls by E-mail or voice using a "display phone," a new phone that has a small display unit and keypad.

Phone companies are the driving force behind enhanced Caller ID; they have already agreed on message standards. Philips and Northern Telecom have demonstrated display phones that will be available when ADSI service is introduced. Display phones -- priced around $300 -- will be sold in the same way that regular phones are now.

The business advantages of ADSI and display phones are obvious. Recipients can screen calls and more easily return messages. Tedious voice information -- operating hours and directory assistance, for example -- is much more convenient when shown on a display than when given by voice. And ADSI users will be able to switch between voice and text instantly: instead of dictating your mailing address, you can simply send it as E-mail.

When connected to a computer, ADSI will be even more powerful. When someone calls you, your computer will be able to automatically look up the name and number, and display notes from previous conversations. Caller ID software will also enable your computer to route messages to you via direct phone connection (for short, urgent messages) or E-mail (for longer, lower-cost messages).

Today phone companies support Caller ID. But there are concerns about whether they will continue to champion a messaging system that could reduce their revenues. Efficient messaging will cut down telephone tag, which accounts for many business calls today; and E-mail generates less revenue for phone companies than voice calls do. But customers will be happier: their phone bills may well go down and the efficiency of their businesses improve. In addition, phone companies will likely sell more Centrex service (giving customers access to special phone features without their buying expensive equipment) because advanced messaging features work best when each person has an individual phone number. If your company has a Centrex or key phone system, ask your vendor about plans to accommodate ADSI and computer networks.

Then there's the question of Caller ID and privacy -- an issue much debated generally. For the vast majority of business messages, however, Caller ID voice calls and E-mail are no different from paper letters, which always carry the name and address of both sender and recipient. Finally the long-predicted marriage of computer and telephone can take place.

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Cary Lu ( was formerly technology editor of Inc.