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If you use the term integrated messaging casually in average IT or management circles, you are likely to see confused frowns or...

If you use the term integrated messaging casually in average IT or management circles, you are likely to see confused frowns or blank looks. Yet the phrase has its roots in traditional mainframe IT, and probably has more relevance today than ever before.

Formerly it was used to describe 'messaging hub' technology on the mainframe, which allowed the transfer of messages between different messaging technologies, and the synchronisation of e-mail contact details between address books in different environments. So, if a new employee was added to the Lotus Notes workgroup, he or she could immediately access workgroups on internet mail, Exchange and so forth, and would be automatically added to the address books of these groups. In this context, integrated messaging has a long history.

However, somewhat confusingly, the term has moved on, and is now often being used interchangeably with unified messaging (UM) technology, although the two are fundamentally different. In the unified approach, voice, fax, and e-mail messages are stored on a central server, while the integrated approach may have messages arriving on several servers, but integrated on the desktop client PC or other device. Tony Mulqueen, marketing communications specialist with messaging provider Critical Path explains: 'In the current definition, integrated messaging refers to the provision of e-mail, fax, and voicemail over IP networks, with a single point of access on the PC in the form of a web interface, or by a telephone device.'

Another term is 'full UM', which sometimes has integration on the desktop, but Mulqueen says that it is possible to distinguish integrated messaging from 'full UM' on the basis that full UM comes with all the bells and whistles of text-to-speech, speech-to-text, and preferred mode of delivery, using a 'find-me-follow-me' approach, mainly for a commercial market. However, other pundits disagree, saying that there is no clear distinction between the categories, and the phrase integrated messaging can be used as an umbrella to embrace all.

'Integrated messaging means delivering everything from plain e-mail to e-mail with attachments, streaming video and video conferencing, e-commerce, CRM information, and voicemail all over the same IP system,' says Mulqueen. 'This requires high bandwidth and resilience, and until now the technology has not been widely available.' It is also a technology which is on the threshold of great expansion. Linda Busby, IBM's business integration marketing manager, says: 'All the predictions and indicators are that integrated messaging, which consolidates all types of messages into one personalised access point, is the way forward for individuals and applications.'

The most common interface for today's integrated messaging is currently the desktop PC, but it is an important element of the technology that the phone and mobile are empowered as alternatives. As integrated messaging spreads, and as the technology becomes more proven and robust, users are going to expect to be able to receive, and send, all types of message from a single point.

Rod Lahiri, BT business information systems meridian 1 messaging product manager says: 'What is important about integrated messaging is not only the development of the underlying technology, but the users' expectations to access all fax, voice, and e-mail messages by any device, and be able to respond to them immediately.' Integrated messaging over IP mean that future users will expect to access all message types on standard, everyday mobile devices. They can already log into their office network from any location, and see a single 'in-box' that contains all their e-mails, voicemails, pager messages, faxes, and video messages. New integrated messaging technologies allow users to play back voicemails using the PC or laptop speakers of a Voice over IP telephone handset connected to their computer, and receive messages which comprise embedded elements of many forms of messaging.

The benefits of both integrated and unified messaging are better connectivity services, lower costs, and a single point of billing. The impact of this can be particularly dramatic in an international organisation which has overseas offices or sales teams. Mulqueen says: 'It is dramatically cheaper and easier to access voicemail and fax over long distances by IP technology. It can be the difference between a few dollars for the hire of a web browser in a business centre, to hundreds of pounds for transmitting faxes, and long distance telephone access to voicemail.' Busby adds: 'The business benefits of assured once only delivery to a convenient location or device will be irresistible.'

Firms which should particularly be looking at integrated messaging are those that operate in several disparate locations, or those with a mobile and dispersed salesforce, or those who deal with customers and suppliers abroad. Specific productivity gains include the ability to respond more rapidly to messages, delivering increased worker efficiency and speed. Messages will chase the user, rather than the other way around.

Ironically, the single point of contact can also be a disadvantage. Mulqueen says: 'If your integrated service goes down, all your eggs are in one basket.' It can be hard to move between providers, although this is a plus for the providers, and some providers operate premium numbers that make it costly for your contacts to reach you. Security becomes an even more important issue, especially as one system can be used for information based services, integrated messaging services, and transaction based services from a single platform. With multimedia access to all media sharing the same database, directory, and other server resource, the system can be more vulnerable to a backdoor weakness, which allows a malcreant or hacker in to create havoc.

Although a lot of integrated messaging services are free, adoption may require you to change your telephone number, and you may not be able to record your own greeting on some services, which can be off-putting for users and customers. But the convenience and some of the fancy features can be extremely interesting to managers seeking to streamline their employees working processes or find a unique marketing differential.

However, some systems are over-functioned, and more complex than necessary. This can be avoided by the judicious use of a closely defined wish list at the specification and purchasing stage. Remember that in the early stages of a new marketplace like integrated messaging there is a tendency to emphasise the number of features available in products coming to market, their vast capabilities and cool tools, while systems which have less features, but which are well proven, may prove to be more satisfactory. l

Quality of service

When one system is used to send and receive all messages, its importance grows and reliability becomes a key issue. Tim Beard, EMEA marketing manager with Sitara says that as e-mail grows into a complex service, and other demands are put on the IP network and integrated messaging takes on greater importance, the strain on the technology and network will increase dramatically. He says, 'IP was never designed to carry multiple traffic types with greatly varying requirements in bandwidth and latency. We need to add a layer of intelligence to cope with conflicts and clashes. Quality of Service is the first step in achieving this.'

Quality of Service (QoS) delivers techniques which intelligently match the needs of specific applications to the network resources available, allocating business critical applications the necessary priority and bandwidths. Beard says, 'The key to ensuring that all demands and application requirements are met is by controlling the bandwidth pipes.' He continues, 'There has to be 'fairness' between data flows. It is not sufficient to just allocate a certain amount of bandwidth to each traffic class - that is too general. One must also ensure that each user sees the same performance as other users, and the responsiveness of the system is constant and consistent.'

To solve this and other network management problems created by integrated messaging, Sitara has developed its QoS Appliance. Beard explains, 'QoS is seen as a black art by many network managers, but a tool like QoSWorks makes integrated messaging implementations quick and simple to set up and maintain. QoS helps avoid the expensive and over ineffective 'solution' of over-provisioning. It uses a full set of traffic control and caching techniques that fix the network manager's traffic problems so making the network managers life easier and gives a better service, while enabling the company to move more easily into the world of e-business.'

The technology

The integrated messaging market is already huge and burgeoning, with a great range and variety of suppliers and solution providers battling to establish themselves. Some analysts expect a growth by a factor of 20 in the next 12 months. However, many deployments are still at the pilot stage, and there is still a sense of the experimental and beta about many products and solutions.

Most of the smart money is on a 12 month wait, to see how the technology develops. Next year will also see big jumps in bandwidth, which will permit real-world integrated messaging, but it is currently still an early adopter market.

As different traffic types are consolidated into a single delivery platform, with a single server and all delivered over the IP network, the stress on the network increases. Different traffic types, from plain e-mail to video conferencing, have different requirements in terms of bandwidth, and, even more crucially, latency sensitivity. E-mails and faxes are not latency sensitive, and e-mails with attachments can take up a large amount of bandwidth. But voice is very delay and latency sensitive, and variable delays can cause poor voice quality. Using one network for e-mail, web access, file transfer, and videoconferencing will, with current technology, lead to delay variations and transmission problems, which will manifest themselves in the most obvious and high profile services, such as videoconferencing.

While current technology allows for the seamless integration of text and speech messages, future developments in voice recognition (IVR), OCR (optical character recognition), and GSM (global system for mobiles) data rates will allow solutions with further integration and video/graphical enhancements. Text will be automatically transformed into speech and vice versa. The ways that these solutions can be used are still being developed, but the clich‚ is probably true that applications are currently limited only by the imagination of the developers and users.

Growth and costs

Predictions for integrated messaging are dramatic. For example, Frost & Sullivan predicts that the total market for messaging will have a compound annual growth rate of 71 per cent until 2003, exceeding $4bn by 2005.

Many of the estimates are based on current and predicted e-mail use, with the expectation that e-mail users will want to move to a consolidated messaging approach. IDC estimates that e-mail use will increase by 25 per cent annually until 2005, and The Gartner Group estimates that 15 per cent of e-mails are currently outsourced, but that figure is likely to rise to 65 per cent by the end of 2001. Recent research also suggests that the typical business user receives an average of 45 e-mails each day, and sends an average of 20 each day, and will be seeking some form of message consolidation to simplify their lives. Over a year the average business user will send and receive over 16,000 e-mails, and for an organisation with 5,000 employees the total sum is over 81 million e-mails a year. Many firms which now manage their own e-mail, and other messaging, will start to outsource, to ensure an end-to-end service, and to ensure integrity, and to have the power to demand reliability. Business 2.0 estimates that the costs of outsourced e-mail are between £3 and £5 per month per user, compared with the £250 to £300 per year. The cost of adding other messaging types to e-mail is negligible.

The solutions

IBM's MQ Series has been connecting business software and enabling applications to exchange information between multiple platforms for more than 10 years. This can include mobile telephones and PDAs as well as desktop and portable PCs, and covers over 35 platforms with more being announced all the time. The latest version of MQSeries is Everyplace for Windows, which gives mobile and pervasive devices reliable transactional and messaging capabilites.

Two other leading integrated messaging products are CallExpress3 from AVT and Unity from Active Voice. Earlier this year, Frost & Sullivan identified AVT as a leading independent messaging solution provider with a 15 per cent market share.

There are many other outstanding solutions too. For example, Siemens Xpressions 470 allows users to choose and change their preferred medium to send and receive and reply to messages. Voice, fax, e-mail and video messages can be accessed, sent and received using fixed and mobile phones, PCs or fax machines. All types of messages sent are stored in a common inbox for simple and efficient complex message management. Xpressions 470 also allows users to blend message formats using 'message morphing' technology to create 'compound messages'.' The Siemens technology also features video message streaming technology, which allows users to record and send video messages across the network using cameras attached to their PCs.

Some vendors are offering add-on products, such as Primus' Interchange which gives chat facilities to web pages. Some vendors come from an IT background, while others like Ascom come from a telecom perspective. Mike Ballentine, Ascom's product manager says, 'It is possible with such products as the Ascom Call Centre to deliver full integrated messaging by unifying a PBX system with a Windows NT server. This gives a single point of contact for all office communications.' Veritas Software's Messaging solution is also typical of the next generation product, integrating all messaging types so that they can be accessed from many varied devices.

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