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TFLX: Iconic Voice Mail for the Macintosh

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A company like mine, with more than one location and seven people trying to retrieve messages while out of the office, presents significant phone management difficulties. Possible solutions include hiring a receptionist and hoping the receptionist doesn't call in sick, hiring an external answering service (which I hate using as a customer), or finding another solution. I've looked at some of the software-based options in past years, and had never been satisfied with the voice quality. But, I kept looking because if I could solve this problem for my company, my company could solve similar dilemmas for our clients.

First Impressions -- After seeing a short reference to Magnum Software's TFLX product in a Mac periodical, we called their non-toll-free number for a demonstration of their phone answering system. It seemed to work, so we ordered a copy of TFLX and the associated hardware. TFLX is an interesting voice mail system that can be controlled from a computer as old as a Mac Plus with a hard disk drive and preferably 4 MB of RAM (though it can run in 2.5 MB of RAM).

Our initial experience with TFLX was frustrating. The company's software only works with their own hardware (which is a good thing, I suspect), but you can't buy into the base level system for less than about $500. They offer no free trials, no money-back guarantees. Not auspicious. Nonetheless, they did agree in the end to take the product back, if necessary, in 30 days for a 10 percent restocking fee. We bit. We were so excited, we paid to have the product rushed to us for Saturday delivery.

Things got scary fast. The manual was missing every other page. Seeing myself as a reasonably clever guy, I almost tried to implement the system even with only half the pages. I'm glad I didn't waste my time. I got real scared though, when I called their non-toll-free tech support line and it rang... and rang... and rang.... "Oh no," I thought. "Did they leave town already?!"

Let me say right here, the product is good, and I do recommend it. Nonetheless, it's not a journey for the faint of heart. Turns out Scott, one of the authors, stays around until about 2 AM his time, and answers the phone that late. He forgot to turn the system on when he left the day I needed to leave a message. They got a new manual to me the next day and apologized.

So, I started the "Read Me First" section - and was totally confused. Not only is the manual riddled with (minor) errors, but some of the descriptions were terribly incomplete. Like "Some model Macintoshes have a microphone jack in the back. DO NOT plug the TFLX audio or microphone cables into this jack." OK, fine, they scared me. I had no idea which jack was which, and they never told me what to look for. Yes, we figured it out, but wasted a bit of time doing so. Even a spell checker would have helped the manual (unless "Magilbox" is a new industry term that has escaped me).

The first time I ran the software, I got an immediate, cryptic, error message in a dialog box "Unable to Load STR# 9997,1". Gulp. A call to Magnum tech support identified the error as an unidentified model of computer (a PowerBook 540). Turns out this was important, though I didn't learn that until later.

I had numerous, frustrating crashes, or what seemed like crashes as I worked through the tutorial. When the system thinks it's recording something or in the middle of a call, everything else freezes, even SuperClock and mouse movement. I now think some of my crashes weren't exactly crashes but a jaundiced outlook on my part. In the end, I eliminated all crashes but one by setting an obscure parameter appropriate to my PowerBook. Again, Magnum's technical support led me through the solution. This problem could arise with any new model of Macintosh, it turns out. The other reproducible bug is an avoidable problem with Option-dragging a text box to copy it, and - now that they know about it - Magnum plans to fix it for the next version.

Programming TFLX -- In spite of these problems, development went smoothly, especially after I figured out the program's philosophy. Most important, the tech support was absolutely first rate. I got through every time up to about 2 AM and the help was comprehensive. (They don't advertise tech support to 2 AM and presumably it isn't dependably available.) Even when I was being an idiot they patiently led me through the steps necessary to complete my tasks and showed me tricks to speed my testing. Though it was always on my dime, the support was worth it. The fact that they were never condescending brightened my outlook immeasurably.

TFLX uses icons to program the steps in routing an incoming call. The program has "speak icons" to speak messages and it can construct completely new messages like "the time is 8:18 PM" by stringing together stored words and phrases. You can use supplied sounds or record new ones.

You can easily see (and print) the logic of your program since it's all graphically displayed. For example, to program a voicemail function to retrieve a message, you'd need an icon to speak a greeting when a user calls in, a line drawn to the next icon that accepts keypad input from the phone, a line from there to Accept icons that see the input and determine which branch the program should follow, a Message Retrieve icon, and a Quit icon. A Message Retrieve icon gives you options for listening to messages, deleting them, and traversing them, all without any effort on the designer's part. Once you understand the flowchart-like programming paradigm, it's incredibly easy and you can make changes quickly.

TFLX Hardware and Software -- The TFLX software comes in two sections: the development tool and the runner application. The runner simply runs what you've developed. The cool thing is, the runner can be set to accept keyboard input so you don't have to dial your phone continually to test what you've done.

The software itself comes in various modules. The base module does basic incoming call routing and retrieving. Optional modules handle fax-back, database connectivity, and videophone applications.

Database connectivity offers some especially neat features. Imagine a client calling with an urgent pricing question when nobody is available to take the call. With a supported database and password protection, clients can retrieve prices, issue purchase orders to you, and even use the phone response system to log orders by entering part numbers when prompted. I don't know how practical some of this is, but the possibilities seem endless.

Because TFLX uses its own hardware to digitize sound (one reason the sound quality is superior to others we'd tested), you have to buy a "box" for each phone line in addition to the software. Also, it requires a computer for each line. That would be outrageous for even a four-line office if it weren't for the fact that a Mac Plus can handle the program (by design). A 4 MB Mac Plus with a decent hard drive costs about $250.

In implementing this system, we had to be concerned with the dislike many people have to voice response systems. In our case, a voice response system makes us more efficient and allows us to serve our clients more quickly and less expensively. Even so, we plan to listen to our clients closely as we continue to develop the system.

Magnum Software -- 818/701-5051 -- 818/701-5459 (fax)

 

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