Small firms gain a line to the smart phone

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The Independent Online
Small businesses will shortly be able to benefit from the sort of technology enjoyed by their larger counterparts when an Oxford-based company launches a product that in effect converts a personal computer into a telephone exchange.

Nexus has developed a software package that enables a company with networked PCs to link its staff's telephones as well. It is done by inserting a small card in the PC. Each card can handle three outside lines and eight extensions. Larger businesses can insert additional cards to deal with up to 12 outside lines and 40 extensions.

Once the software is installed, the users - a sales team, for instance - can dial regular customers by clicking on their names on the PC screen. When a customer's call is answered it triggers a database search so that their full details are immediately put on the screen of whoever picks up the telephone. This tells the salesperson which company the caller is from, and gives details such as the amount and type of products they usually buy. It can even say whether they have paid their bill, explains John Burton, who developed the system with two former colleagues at Northern Telecom.

"Organisations that have a number of PCs and rely on phones for a lot of their business will benefit just from making calls much more easily," says Mr Burton. He adds that one of the companies with which Nexus has been conducting site trials over the past three months is a property developer that needs to be in regular contact with a lot of contractors at any one time.

The success of the trials means the company is planning to put the system on general release in the next few weeks. Eventually Nexus plans to work through a dealer network but initially it will be handling all sales itself in extended field trials. "We'll give support to get experience of the market," says Mr Burton.

With a starting price of pounds 2,000, the system is more expensive than the conventional small business telephone exchange. But Mr Burton explains that Nexus provides small businesses with the sort of capability that had previously only been enjoyed by large companies at a cost of about pounds 40,000.

Mr Burton, with his partners, Seamus Ruane and Simon Meikeljohn, started Nexus about two years ago by developing the product in their bedrooms. Lucius Cary, the founder of the business angel network Venture Capital Reporter (VCR) who now advises 3i on investing in technology start-ups, saw the system once the founders' personal savings had developed it to the point where they could demonstrate it. He rated it a "fantastic product" and secured 3i's backing about a year ago.

Mr Cary, who sold VCR last year, has been instrumental in increasing venture capitalists' willingness to invest in such projects.

However - as a recent Bank of England report pointed out - there is still a shortage of funds in this area. He hopes the Oxford Technology Venture Capital Trust he launched on 11 March will help to finance and develop other Nexuses in their early stages.