Design Your Own Voice-mail

Press 1 for integrated communications with i·link's telephony software

by Lee Sherman

As computers evolve from information processors to communications tools, telephony software is becoming as important as word processors and spreadsheets. With mix, even the smallest entrepreneur can have a phone system that rivals multinational corporations. mix (an acronym for multimedia information exchange) is a software and hardware system that provides data, fax and voice-mail capabilities on a single telephone line, with incoming calls automatically routed to the appropriate function. Lower-cost versions of the system are available if you don't need data or fax support.

Originally developed for use with NeXT's proprietary hardware, the mix box attaches to, and draws its power from, the NeXT's DSP port. The box, which is a bit smaller than a conventional modem (4.25 inches by 4.25 inches by 1.25 inches), converts the analog telephone-line signals into the digital signals understood by the computer. The rest of the mix functionality is completely implemented in software.

Owners of Intel-based machines will be able to use mix with i·link's announced but unreleased i56 DSP card, which will bring all of the NeXT-station's sound and DSP capabilities to white hardware. Since the i56 requires NEXTSTEP 3.2, we were unable to review it at this time.

The mix software seamlessly integrates with NEXTSTEP's e-mail, fax, and sound-recording capabilities, making it feel more like an extension to the system software than a third-party application. You send faxes through the Print panel just as you do with a fax-modem; voice-mail messages can be made to show up in your mailbox along with the rest of your mail. Combined with NEXT-STEP's capability to alert you by mail when a fax has come in, you end up with one centralized mailbox for all incoming messages.

Outgoing and incoming messages are recorded using the built-in microphone and stored as digitized sound files.

You'll need to make sure you've got enough disk space to support heavy use of the answering machine or if you receive a lot of faxes (a 30-second message will take up approximately 225KB, while incoming faxes can take up between 10KB and 250KB of disk space per page). The mix address book shares its information with the address book in the Workspace Manager, so you only have to enter names and addresses once.

Because the mix answering machine is based in software, you can reprogram it to suit your needs. mix ships with four sample answering machines that can be used right out of the box: a conventional answering machine with a single outgoing message that sends incoming messages to your NeXTmail mailbox; a sophisticated voice-mail system that can take messages for several different individuals; a call-forwarding system that will record a message, then hang up, call another telephone number, and replay the message to whomever answers; and an automated ordering system that allows the caller to leave a message, enter a remote-access code, and enter order numbers.

If you don't like any of these, you can develop your own using i·link's icon-based programming language. To develop a program, you simply drop icons from a palette in the order in which you want events to occur. Icons in the palette represent different operations that your answering machine will perform. By using the branch access, remote access, and mail icons, you can create voice-mail systems that are as complex as any commercial system.

An application called direct is the main interface to the telephone portion of mix. You can make calls using the on-screen dialer or dial direct from an on-screen address book. With the address book, you can store phone numbers and perform speed dialing; direct will keep a log of all calls as well. You can also dial from the Services menu, if you prefer to use another name and address database such as SBook or DataPhile or wish to dial a phone number from another application such as Edit or Mail. While i·link is to be commended for taking advantage of NEXTSTEP's underused addressing system, we'd also like to see a way to import addresses from the popular address-book programs.

New in Version 2.0 is the ability for mix to function as a 2400-bps full-duplex data modem. You communicate with the soft modem through a special /dev/cum device. We used the soft modem to call several BBSs using Software Ventures' Microphone II with no problem.

While the product is now more complete, 2400 baud is too slow by today's standards; the lack of MNP5 is also dissapointing. i·link promises increased speed in a future release, as well as support for speaker phone, voice recognition, Caller ID, and the ability to run programs remotely over the telephone. i·link's programming language can also be extended by purchasing additional objects that provide some of the missing functionality. Third parties can also write their own. In short, it's difficult to imagine a voice-mail system that couldn't be developed using mix.

While mix is a fine solution for the installed base of black hardware, we question i·link's wisdom in continuing to base its Intel offering on a piece of proprietary hardware. Today's high-speed modems provide fax and data capabilities, as well as voice digitization, Caller ID, and more. What we would really like to see is i·link software running on off-the-shelf modems such as those available from ZyXEL and Supra.

Lee Sherman is a NeXT-WORLD contributing editor.

mix 2.0

4 Cubes

mix is integrated communications software that combines the functionality of a fax-modem, a telephone, and an answering machine. It includes a fully programmable system for developing voice-mail applications. While mix can give even the smallest entrepreneur the communications capabilities of a multinational corporation, its limited data-modem speed and hardware requirements won't appeal to every user.

Black hardware:

$565 box and call; $761 box, call, and fax; $865 box, call, fax, and data

White hardware (includes i56 DSP card):

$8135 box and call; $1009 box, call, and fax; $1113 box, call, fax, and data

Alembic Systems International,

14 Inverness Dr. E., Ste. G-228, Englewood, CO 80112.