Phone Ahead

A new breed of high-tech telephones makes doing business easier than ever.
Magazine Contributor
7 min read

This story appears in the November 1997 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

If you've resisted tackling the mysteries of the but still want to send and receive e-mail, the next generation of high-tech phones, commonly called "screen phones" or "video phones," have built-in modems and miniature monitors so you can do just that. Or, for those who leave their in the office, a screen phone at home allows you to not only pick up e-mail and make calls like a regular but also check your stocks and the latest sports scores.

"The majority of Americans have yet to enjoy the benefits of the Internet, such as e-mail, because they don't own a computer, are not online or are intimidated by it," says Tagni Osentowski of Ft. Worth, -based Uniden Corp., a wireless communications company that sells screen phones. "A screen phone is a new way to send and receive e-mail without a computer."

A combination of a telephone, electronic address book and computer, screen phones plug into phone jacks and AC outlets just like standard phones and answering machines. Considering their many advanced features, they are surprisingly low-priced, ranging from $200 to $350. Another high-tech innovation is a videoconferencing phone system that sells for just under $500.

Screen telephones with Internet access require you to use a national Internet service provider (ISP) such as America Online, or AT&T, or a local ISP, all of which charge average monthly service rates of around $19.95. You will also have to pay for the time you're on the phone, but most ISPs use a local phone number, so charges are generally minimal.

The Players

The screen phone with the fanciest bells and whistles is Uniden 's Axis EP 100. Resembling a small laptop computer with a flip-up lid that houses the display screen, the Axis measures 14 by 67|8 by 55|8 inches and has 2MB of memory. The base unit has a built-in keyboard that is 20 percent smaller than a standard PC keyboard, cursor and arrow keys, a separate dial pad, a speaker phone outlet, and five function buttons that correspond to icons on the display screen. The icons include Mail, Caller ID, Phone Directory, Notes and Home, which gets you back to the main menu. One big advantage Axis has over your computer's e-mail function is that Axis periodically calls your ISP to see if you have any e-mail messages waiting. If you do, the phone will download it and an icon will blink like an answering machine. When you press the Mail button, your e-mail instantly appears onscreen.

Although Axis comes preconfigured to connect with the through , it is also compatible with most major ISPs, so if you have an existing account, you can continue using it. Another Internet service built in to Axis is SmartTime, which you set up through the phone's menu selection to continually check personalized stock quotes, weather forecasts and other news. The cost to use SmartTime is $9.95 a month and includes e-mail.

Axis' Caller ID function displays the name and number of the person calling you onscreen; the Notes function allows you to type reminders and notes for specific days of the month, though you can't print them out. This function also supplies a calendar.

Lucent Technologies' ADSI SpeakerPhone 980 screen phone is a smaller version of the Axis phone, without the flip lid. The display screen is large enough to show eight lines of text, with 24 characters on each line, and all control buttons are easy to find and read. The speaker phone is located under the handset. The four onscreen function buttons allow you to choose from Take Message, Hang Up, Please Hold and Switch, while eight other buttons next to the dial pad indicate Select, Menu, Flash, Hold, Mute, Volume Up, Volume Down and Speaker. When not in use, the small keyboard and cursor arrows are protected by a flip cover.

The ADSI 980's built-in modem connects to your ISP, allowing you to send and receive e-mail and to check on news, with a flashing light to indicate you have messages waiting or that a new call has been received and stored in Caller ID memory. Tracking calls is as simple as scrolling through the screen, which will display the time and date of the call even if the caller leaves no message.

All 100 numbers the user inputs into the phone's directory can be auto-dialed; the calendar allows for 50 reminders, which are date-timed and alert the user with a light and a beep.

The volume control buttons are located near the dial pad, so adjusting a caller's voice level is more convenient than having a button hidden at the side of the base, as on most standard phones.

While we're still waiting for a desktop video phone to materialize, one company has come up with an affordable alternative: video conferencing and two-way video phone calling using your regular phone hooked up to a special camera that connects to any TV set.

Called VC105 ViaTV Phone, from Santa Clara, California-based 8x8, the world's largest supplier of video chips, the system is basically a book-sized digital video camera, like a camcorder, that houses a modem. It sits on top of your television, similar to a cable box. The camera can tilt, pan and zoom. To use, simply unplug your touch-tone or analog phone from its wall jack and plug it into the ViaTV Phone, dial the number, and you have instant visual and audio communication. The device also allows users to see themselves in a small onscreen window on their TV set, as well as watch the person they're calling, just like a TV program. There's a Privacy Mode, which allows you to switch off your end of the visual function, and Caller ID.

At $499 per unit, the system is an inexpensive way to show out-of-state customers your products and services in living color, and a friendly way to introduce yourself to and communicate with new clients. If you're a road warrior, using the portable ViaPhone in a hotel room is a wonderful way to keep in touch with your family back home or to show the people back in the office how a new product is shaping up.

All of the ViaTV Phone's functions are controlled by the numbers, star and pound signs on your own dial. The Caller ID function identifies the caller on your TV screen so that before you pick up the phone you can decide whether you'd rather take the call or continue watching your favorite TV program. Another feature is Auto Answer, which automatically answers the phone after a specified number of rings and turns the camera on. On the security front, the Auto Answer feature is useful for monitoring who may be in your office or home while you're away.

Since there is no Internet access needed with the ViaTV Phone, it requires no monthly service provider, special telephone company rates or wiring. A $5 VHS videotape, credited toward the purchase price, is available if you want to see the phone before buying it. The ViaTV Phone is available in electronics stores nationwide.

When shopping for a screen phone, ask the salespeople about:

  • compatibility with standard e-mail services
  • which Internet applications besides e-mail are available
  • if the screen phone can download attachments or files
  • if you can hook up the phone to a separate full-size keyboard, if that's your preference
  • which service providers are used

Jill Amadio is a writer in Newport Beach, California.

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