Unified messaging takes on new significance

Nokia predicts over a billion mobile phones by 2001. With so much business conducted on Internet time, a transparent and unified...

Nokia predicts over a billion mobile phones by 2001. With so much business conducted on Internet time, a transparent and unified communication network is a necessity

Busy IT professionals tend to be the first to adopt new communications technologies. From the telex, fax pager and mobile phone to internet-inspired services such as voicemail, email and IRC, the number of ways to make contact has mushroomed over the last decade. But how to avoid information overload? With time and location of work becoming more flexible, workers cannot depend on a single fixed solution. Offering new tools to manage the different methods of communicating may be the answer.

Unified messaging is not a new concept, but with advances in communications infrastructure, the cost and complexity of implementing a single contact number solution is dropping.

Potential unified messaging customers could be divided into desk bound user, road warrior (mobile user) and the mass market consumer . Each has their own needs and the IT industry is catering for them in innovative ways.

Statistics from the European Union claim that there will be 10 million teleworkers within Europe by the year 2000, earning 400 billion Euros. While Britain heads the European telework League table, Finland, Norway and Sweden closely follow it. These statistics are likely to grow as business becomes focused on the online boom, forcing email to become the most effective way of communication with the e-consumer.

Even with the growth of teleworking, the majority of business time will still be spent in a fixed location. The primary requirement for these desk bound users, keen to exploit unified messaging, is flexibility and reliability. The loss or delay in responding to messages can cause missed sales or affect the reputation of a company. Fixed assets, like company PABX's, fax machines and mail systems, need to be integrated, not replaced, while individual or departmental integration and billing are also major concerns.

A good example of an integrated solution suitable for this type of user is David, a corporate information server, which is Tobit software's flagship product. David is advertised as the worker who never sleeps and essentially provides the functions of an office assistant. It integrates different message services like fax, email and voicemail into one single product. The technology behind David is reasonably simple. A Netware or NT server has a card that communicates with both a server side application and desktop client via a number of ISDN or analogue modems. Although not cheap, the system manipulates voice, fax, email and SMS in numerous ways. Typically, David equipped users can perform simple tasks such as desktop faxing and SMS creation, as well as advanced functions like remote email reception and forwarding via a mobile handset. The typical services like group notification can now be handled in multiple mediums simultaneously across small workgroups, off site workers or even whole companies.

David is not a cheap solution and it does require a dedicated NT or NetWare server; unfortunately there is no support for Unix. The new 6.0 version will add more functionality, including synthesised speech converting faxes and mail to audio in six European languages. Because the system uses a simple scripting language, tailored solutions can be created for each customer. David is impressive but is still location-centric and reliant on PC server architecture, which has variable reliability. For some companies, 99 per cent uptime is still not high enough.

The road warrior typically represents the sales or maintenance branch of a company. Constantly meeting clients or pursuing leads, extended trips away from the office may exclude him from the communications loop. Until recently, the mobile phone has been the communicator of choice, but as visual data in the form of email and faxes becomes necessary, trying to balance functionality with portability is an important requirement.

The recently-launched Dolphin service offers an alternative to cellular phones, especially for data intensive organisations with a large base of distributed or mobile workers. Dolphin's UK licensing of part of the TETRA digital radio network means that a solution, which is part walkie-talkie, part mobile phone and part message service is now becoming an attractive proposition to many businesses.

Touted as a replacement for the PABX, the network offers free calls between other Dolphin handsets leased from the company and PABX functions like conference calls, virtual extensions and call transfer. When it comes to data, the 7.2K (28.8k-Q1 2000) stream is enough for simple document transfer such as meeting schedules and job sheets. Dolphin is still a new concept and as such the handsets are still quite chunky. The cost of making calls outside of a Dolphin "Mobile PABX" are more expensive than carriers like BT or Mercury.

All the major mobile networks are already responding to Dolphin's arrival into the market as a business-only mobile network. Vodaphone is about to announce the piloting of a General Packet Radio Service that will offer data rates comparable to current 56K modems. In the background, Vodaphone is also conducting research into HSCSD (High Speed Circuit Switch Data) which could offer something like ISDN packet data across mobile networks. Hutchinson Telecommunication's popular Orange service has also been recently upgraded with "Wildfire" digital assistant and web-like phone services. Both companies are offering business reasons to stick with traditional GSM based mobile networks. The road warrior space is still the most highly lucrative and fast-paced arena for message unification. If Nokia's estimates of a billion mobile phones being in circulation by 2001 are correct, then any unified messaging system needs to cater to the mobile user.

The mass-market consumer space offers one of the newest and probably most exciting products in the unified messaging field, the strangely named YAC, or "You're Always Connected". YAC is the brain child of chief executive officer Mike Feerick. Although not a new concept, the inclusion of a web interface, a zero cost start-up package and fixed rate costs explain the popularity of this fledgling service, which was only launched on 9th November 1999.

The system allows a user to assign different communication devices into a hierarchical tree under a single 07092 number. If either a fax or voice call comes in and survives the user selectable call-barring feature, it will try various numbers until it locates the recipient. If the recipient is busy or chooses not to take the call, the system will take a message and forward this via WAV/MP3 (or JPG in the case of faxes) to an email address. Services like Orchestrate's Personal Assistant and General Magic's Portico have offered similar features in the past but none have provided both this level of functionality at no cost to the user.

The take up of YAC has been phenomenal, with over 10,000 users in the first 16 days of service. However, the one major criticism is the potentially high cost to the caller, with a call diverted via YAC ranging from 10p up to 50p a minute. In a recent interview with ITNETWORK.COM, YAC's Piers Mummery, VP of business development, countered this criticism. He maintains that: "Even though we are a Internet-based telecommunication provider, YAC pricing is categorised as a mobile phone rate and as such we are instructed to comply with [OFTEL] regulations to offer this at J rate (mobile phone tariffs) for the time being. We are not happy about this because we know that the consumer has been paying far too much for telephony costs historically, which is why BT makes £317 per minute net profit... they can get away with it."

Although YAC is based in the UK, its fixed rate charge is supported in most major European countries and the US with plans for continued expansion. Mummery believes that this interoperability, plus its internet roots, is the key to success. "Earlier this year we applied for full telecoms regulatory clearance in each European country, which takes months to achieve, and we already have clearance from many of the regulators. One of the great things about a net-based organisation is its ability to move in the market. We are the first mover in the space of combining free personal numbers, call redirection and unified messaging as a single solution."

YAC is not alone in this space and appropriating the model of Internet service provider Freeserve by offering a free service is not enough unless that service is able to provide levels of quality and innovation. Mummery goes on to comment that: "As the predominant offering from YAC is inbound communications management, the obvious direction is outbound. However, we still have numerous areas of opportunity to fully exploit our current offering, with many interesting developments in telecoms, we shall be capitalising on this. Areas like WAP, VOIP and intelligent call routing are in the arena for development from YAC."

Although still in its early stage, YAC is likely to be a success, though there are currently some small glitches in the service. For example, the unattended sending of faxes to YAC numbers is still twitchy, while devices like answer phones and pagers still cause routing problems. In YAC's defence, however, these are generally inherent to all of single number solutions. The next version of YAC is likely to offer unification of email under a similar scheme with redirection and management of multiple mail addresses to a significant gap in the market.

YAC's rivals are not standing idle. Call Science's new online manager service makes integration of services independent of a fixed PC. By creating an online message centre for voice, email and faxes, and requiring only a browser and net access to functions, the possibilities for thin client users are great indeed. Another rival, Cognitel's new NovCom software, uses speech recognition to trigger specific services and messages for someone dialling into the system. This would typically be a personalised greeting or even diverting calls to another number for certain groups of callers, like important clients or senior colleagues. The consumer space is growing rapidly and like the boom in ISPs, the model looks to offer high value but unfortunately less distinction between services - only brands.

One of the goals of unified messaging is transparency. If you need to contact someone, the future communication net will negotiate the medium and provide a channel for information using whatever method is most convenient, whether video, fax, voice, email, SMS or even real time IRC. If you leave a message, the next generation of smart unified messengers will convert said message into a form that my local communication device can manipulate. Above all, this level of connectivity needs to be simple to operate and flexible.

With this level of intelligence, the privacy of recipients and callers needs to be adhered to. Junk mail may be a problem now, but if a billion telephones ring with automated sales pitches accompanied by email brochures, technology will not have solved anything. Does the industry recognise this?

John Angus, director of marketing for Call Science commented recently that: "[VOIP] is a interesting question for [unified messaging vendors] which we probably haven't given the sort of thought it deserves. Different people have different opinions as to when it will be upon us. It will definitely open up different permutations of call instances and ways of accessing messages. At the end of the day you have to think of what the end user wants and we think that people are very keen to protect their time. Call screening and email filters are important as we each receive more information. We need to reach a balance between access and control."

Call Science's innovative self-service Online-Manager is likely to be adopted by rivals but Angus points out that this is not just a gimmick, saying: "The most important thing is the user interface. Simple and logical will separate the sheep from the goats in this industry."

To date, unified messaging solutions have still not been widely adopted. Whether the perception of high running cost, complexity or even communications overload limits potential appeal is unclear. What is obvious is that as Internet and mobile phone usage grows, bridging the gap between audio/visual and analogue/digital is of paramount importance. As systems like the fax give way to more modern communication tools such as voice mail, the support for legacy and niche communication methodologies is an area that unified messaging is addressing. This can be gauged by the fall in sales of fax machines following the pattern of telex before them. Unification is part of the wider shift our technology driven culture is making towards eradicating the twin barriers of language and technological incompatibility providing a true global communication network.

Will Garside

Read more on Voice networking and VoIP

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