The telephone ranks as one of the all-time major nuisances among office gadgets. We've been using add-on computerware for years to discipline our phones. It has done wonders for us, and may for you.

Way back in 1984, we discovered the prodigious Watson. Its maker still keeps adding anew to its feats.Watson is a circuit board that fits into IBM or compatible PCs. It comes with software and an easy-to-read manual that helps you install and use it. We recommend it only for hard disk computers. But since we've been advocating hard disks for every business computer for half a decade, we assume you've got one.

Once Watson is in place, you can make it do almost anything but butter the toast. In fact, it can turn on the toaster!

For starters, it can work like a regular telephone answering machine. When your phone rings, it answers with a message you've prerecorded. Then it can copy your caller's message just like an ordinary cheap answering machine. Only it uses your computer's hard disk instead of a casette tape.

When you get back to the office, you can sit at your keyboard and tell Watson to play your messages. If you want to erase messages one, two and four, a few keystrokes delete them. Another couple of keystrokes replay numbers three and five. Play just five again with another keystroke sequence.

Nothing extraordinary so far. But how's this? You can set Watson up so that when you're out of the office, you can phone in. Then, if you tap out your password on any touchtone phone, Watson obeys the same computer commands as in the office. It does whatever work you can make it do at your desk!

There's more! You can give separate passwords to special clients and to employees. Then they can call in and receive messages that were left for their ears only. Watson can manage a bunch of these personal electronic message boxes.

You can even join the fad of having computerized operators route your phone calls. You know, the ones that go something like, "If you want the Order Department, touch number one. For the Complaint Department, touch two." Watson will listen for beep codes and follow any preprogrammed instructions.

Whatever you insert into Watson's software files, it can deliver whenever a caller hits the proper keys. For instance, if the caller hits number one for orders, Watson can read your catalog or give ordering information. Then it can turn on its recording software and copy down the phone order, capturing even the sound of the caller's voice.

Watson also dials phone numbers automatically, and stores telephone numbers in a computerized phone book which you can view onscreen. If you buy the deluxe version, you can rig it to automatically dial phone numbers and deliver canned messages. Even on auto-dial, it will record oral or touch-toned replies.

Watson doubles as a Hayes-compatible modem. If you own it, you don't have to invest in a separate modem for computer-to-computer phone calls. It even comes with telecommunications software, the rather good public domain program called PC Talk III.

Watson's prices start at $200. It also includes a calendar and a scheduler which can be commanded to beep before important appointments. For a telephone demo, phone Natural MicroSystems 1-800-WATSON.

Watson's nearest rival is The Complete Answering Machine (CAM). For $350, it performs most of Watson's incoming phone message jobs. It's not as smart at making its own phone calls, but both can dial phone numbers for you, and both can be set to phone you right after a message comes in and deliver that message. (Both systems thoughtfully protect this feature with passwords.)

You can install up to four CAM circuit boards, automating up to four phone lines if your computer is powerful enough. You can also install CAM on the same phone line as a fax circuit board made by the same manufacturer. That virtue frees you from tying up several dedicated phone lines, one for a fax and one or more for the phone answering machine. The alternative is juggling plugs or callers or jobs and, by day's end, wondering why you once thought computers and phones were your servants instead of the other way around.

If your local dealer can't show you CAM, phone The Complete PC at 408-434-0145.

A lot of busy execs and telemarketers thrive on gadgets like Watson and CAM. But they're not for everyone. In our office, Judi prefers tactile dial-it-yourself contact. Frank loves the power of hitting a computer key and pretending he's busy being productive while his computer dials.

If you want to add just telephone dialing to your computer's bag of tricks, you can do it with software alone. Metro from Lotus dials whatever phone number you give it. It also offers a notepad, list maker, combination calendar and scheduler, plus other useful services.

Borland International's Sidekick (and Sidekick Plus) is another software bag of gadgets that includes phone dialing. It's available for IBM and compatible or Macintosh computers.

Both of those programs will dial only if you own a modem (a small piece of hardware whose circuits make computers understand each other over ordinary telephone lines). If you don't, figure on $100 or more to add the modem.

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