Directory Assistance

By Derrick Ellis posted 01-29-2013 14:06


Shortly after George Coy implemented the first public telephone exchange (switch) in New Haven, Connecticut in January of 1878, he realized the need to document the users.  He subsequently published the first telephone directory consisting of a single piece of paper (cardboard) on February 21, 1878.  It measured 14 cm x 21 cm, and listed 50 subscribers (residences, business, etc).  By November of 1878, the New Haven telephone company grew to 391 subscribers, so he published a 20-page directory.  In order to help his new subscribers learn their way around the new communication device, he published some simple instructions.  Here are a few of those instructions:

  • "Should you wish to speak to another subscriber you should commence the conversation by saying, 'Hulloa!'"
  • 'Never take the telephone off the hook unless you wish to use it’”
  • When you are done talking say, 'That is all,' and the person spoken to should say, 'O.K.'"
  • They were also warned never to "use the wire more than three minutes at a time, or more than twice an hour" without first "obtaining permission from the main office."

While several relevant themes (user training and acceptance, capacity planning, etc) can be gleaned, I want to focus on the pragmatic importance of the telephone directory.  A telephone directory (also known as a telephone book, phone book, or white/yellow pages) is defined as a listing of telephone subscribers to services provided by the organization that publishes the directory.  Its purpose (then and now) is to collect, and publish a centralized database about subscribers, so that one subscriber can easily locate the contact information of another subscriber for whom they know exists.  A telephone directory may also provide instructions about how to use the telephone service and may give important numbers for emergency services.

Many years later, we developed 411, directory assistance, as a convenient way for subscribers to locate the telephone number of another subscriber inside their local calling area.  And now, we use the websites to accomplish the same goal.  While the methods have changed, the purpose remains: we need a method for locating people’s contact information.

It has recently become obvious to me how important the concept of “directory assistance” is with regards to an effective Voice / Video over IP (VoIP) implementation.  I actually believe that it is more important to VoIP implementations then it ever was to earlier phone systems.  I also believe it is the cornerstone of the VoIP foundation that most organizations overlook when building their VoIP service and trying to “unify communications”.  Let me explain.

We all recognize the need to correctly configure and install technological elements such as signaling protocols (SIP or H.323), registration and routing servers, a feature server to provide PBX features, messaging platform for voice mail, etc.  These devices are certainly foundational elements for enabling your new VoIP system for effectively building a VoIP system.  However, they are essentially useless if your users can’t find the contact information for other users on the system.  It’s the same problem that George Coy tried solving on a 14 cm x 21 cm sheet of paper.  We need “directory assistance”. 

The problem that we have today isn’t finding other users on the system, as much as knowing which information and modality is correct.  Most of all of us have a network based directory services such as Microsoft’s Active Directory, Novel’s Directory Service, etc that facilitates authenticating us onto our respective networks.  We all have an email platform such as Microsoft’s Exchange, IBM’s Lotus Domino, Novel GroupWise, etc.  And now we have (or are considering implementing) a UC platform that includes Instant Messaging (IM) and a SIP based phone number that looks like an email address.  When users locate another user within any one of these respective systems, how do they know what information is accurate and which dialing syntax to use?  Thus the point of this week’s blog, we an effective means to collect and correlate contact information for our subscribers, so they can use these new tools efficiently.  Without a centralized directly, our users will likely locate different instances/profiles of the same person, but they won’t know how to actually communicate with them.

In conclusion, I want to encourage each of you to diligently plan for a directory that is accurate, correctly formatted, complete, and easy to search.  “It has been said, that a man with one watch knows what time it is, but a man with two is never quite sure”.  Let’s give our users one watch.