E-mail has been dubbed the "killer app" that ignited the Internet explosion. Most businesses would surely agree it's a killer they struggle not to drown in the ever-increasing volume of e-mail, not to mention voice mail, phone calls, and faxes. Managing and having immediate access to all that noise, whether you're in the office or on the road, is no longer a luxury. It's a necessity, and, often, a burden.
Efficient communication and sharing of information are the two most basic elements of any successful business model, now more than ever. As the delivery of information and communication has become immediate, the response is now expected to be immediate as well. That expectation has led to the surge of unified messaging solutions now starting to mature and become widely available. Their promise of having a single point for initiating, receiving, and responding to all your communications, anytime, anywhere, is not a new one, but the technologies to make it possible may at last be converging.
"E-mail is a mature technology now and the market is saturated," according to Lawrence Herman, a former senior analyst for Telecommunications Services at Frost & Sullivan. "So the manufacturers have been looking for the next big step, and clearly, it's unified messaging." As defined in the purest sense, unified messaging is a system to deliver all e-mail, voice, and fax messages into a single inbox or interface. The interface can be the telephone, a Web browser, or an e-mail client like Microsoft Outlook. Most unified messaging solutions consist of adding a server or enhanced PBX to handle voice and data and some bundled software to integrate it with an e-mail server and operating system.
Doing all of your correspondence from one place prevents phone tag, and ends jumping out of your e-mail to send a fax, or running across the office to the fax machine. It also will eliminate those desperate dashes from office to office, asking if someone mistakenly picked up an important fax. And give up looking for outlets to plug in a laptop and grab messages: As long as you have a phone, all your messages are at hand. Most importantly, resources are less scattered, so you can't help but be more productive.
Vendors have for a while seen small businesses as a ripe market for unified messaging, but so far they haven't bitten. Still, Herman says Frost & Sullivan's recent study, The U.S. Unified Messaging Market, projects the market for unified messaging will approach $6 billion by 2006. Service providers (ISPs, ASPs, and wireless providers) will earn 60 percent of that $6 billion by leasing you that single inbox. Only 10 percent of those revenues will be from sales to the end user, however. Herman says that low percentage is due partly to the complexity of the systems and mostly to the continued migration to outsourcing for communication services just like your telephone service has been from the beginning.
Electronic communication has matured so much, so quickly that you wouldn't think a single point of accessibility would be such a big deal. Why didn't they think of this before? "It's difficult to integrate the phone, e-mail, and fax," says Herman, "because they are three very different technologies. IT and telecommunications use very different business models, protocols, and platforms." Vendors that have specialized in one, now have to learn the other. They're adjusting at the same time that the businesses they serve are.
TWO APPROACHES, ONE END
Regardless of how it's implemented, unified messaging should present the user with one list of all message types with one set of commands or menus for managing them all. Implementation is achieved in one of two ways, either an integrated approach or a universal approach. The better of the two approaches depends on existing communications infrastructure and messaging needs.
THE UNIVERSAL APPROACH
A universal system is usually built from the ground up and uses a single database for storing and managing all message types. Most often this database is the e-mail database. Voice and fax messages may be generated on separate servers, but they are transferred to the e-mail server (and database) for storage and retrieval. The user sees the usual e-mail interface, but can access and manage all message types. From a telephone, the user hears a list of all message types and uses one set of touch-tone commands to manage them all. Some systems include text-to-speech so faxes and e-mails are actually read to you over the phone, but most systems just read the headers and provide options for printing hard copies or accessing them via the Internet.
Universal systems are most often found in larger organizations with more robust e-mail server software that supports integration of other message types within the e-mail database. Examples would be Novell's GroupWise, Microsoft Exchange, and Lotus Notes. The advantage of a universal system is that all users access a single database, which simplifies retrieval and addressing of messages. It also simplifies administration since changes are made to only one database instead of three. Of course there are also disadvantages to a universal system. Since only e-mail servers that are capable of integrating other message types can be used, your choices are limited. Also, transferring all message types to one inbox significantly increases network traffic. The danger inherent in depending on one server can't be overlooked, either. If it goes down, users are left with no access to their messages, so a greater degree of fault tolerance or redundancy must be in place.
THE INTEGRATED APPROACH
Integrated or client-based messaging can also be built from the ground up, but is usually built as an add-on to an existing system. It requires integrating the two or three separate databases and servers there are for each system. One is required for e-mail, another for voice, and yet another for fax, although many integrated systems combine fax with either voice mail or e-mail. The unifying takes place within your e-mail application, so you as the user still see only one inbox, but you're actually accessing two or three different databases for the different message types. From a telephone, the experience is the same as with the universal approach, with one list of all message types and one set of touch-tone commands.
Some integrated systems store all of your messages locally on your PC while maintaining a copy on the server that originally processed the message. The advantage there is the redundancy provided by messages stored in both places. Should there be a network failure, and the voice mail and e-mail servers can longer communicate, e-mail won't be accessible, but users can still access voice mail via their telephone.
Another important advantage of integrated messaging is the ability to work with existing e-mail servers that don't support storage of other message types. To move to a universal system, existing e-mail servers may have to be replaced, but in an integrated system, companies can leverage their existing systems while still providing users with the one inbox interface. Likewise, many companies have invested enormous amounts of money in sophisticated voice-mail systems that they don't want to abandon, and an integrated system can leverage that existing infrastructure, as well.
The biggest disadvantage of an integrated system is the maintenance and administration of two or three different databases. This weakness alone can add significant man-hours to overhead costs. Also, some systems require addressing each message from the appropriate address book stored on the server for that type of message. This can be time consuming and tedious, and can lead to failed messages due to incorrect addressing.
For Gary Korn of Korn, Waterman & Simon, a Tucson, Arizona, law firm of 12, the introduction to unified messaging was sudden. "The PBX we depended on was an integral part of our building," he explained, "but when the landlord declared bankruptcy, we had to find our own system and find it fast." The local consulting group Korn contacted advised him not to buy a new PBX, but rather, to make the leap to a unified messaging system using the Business Guardian X300 from Flexion Systems. "They arrived at 5 p.m. on Friday and I was expecting at least an all-nighter," he says, "so I had ordered dinner and told my wife not to expect me home anytime soon." The system, which cost about $8,000, was set up, configured, and working properly in about one hour.
The Business Guardian X300, an integrated system, is a modular, stand-alone PBX and hardware platform that uses open standards, and therefore is compatible with most third party hardware and software.The open architecture has saved Korn money since he is able to continue to use old PCs running Windows 95 at 133MHz along with newer, faster ones running Windows 98. It also means he can use any brand of phone for employees.
Korn uses his cell phone to access his Outlook inbox as he drives to the office each morning and just listens as it is all read to him. He can respond with voice mail, dictate voice mail to be sent as a wave file attachment to an e-mail, forward messages on to colleagues with instructions attached, or any number of other options. His particular system will soon be configured so his Outlook calendar and address book can be read to him as well. "The synthesized voice may sound like a Martian," Korn quips, "but it's totally changed our client interaction and nothing could be easier."
Evans, Mechwart, Hambleton & Tilton Inc. is a Columbus, Ohio-based civil engineering and surveying firm of 250 employees. Founded in the 1920s, EMH&T has experienced rapid growth in recent years, both in size and in the amount of messages passing in and out of the office every day. Adam Long, engineer, surveyor, and IT manager, realized two years ago that the company's messaging system was outdated. "So many times messages would get lost, mixed up, or given to the wrong person," he says. "And to make it worse, the system was based on UNIX, but there was no longer anyone around who was familiar with UNIX." EMH&T chose CallExpress from AVT Corporation to work with the rest of its company's Windows NT-based system.
CallExpress is a modular system that can be configured as either an integrated or universal messaging system. Long says it has created a more efficient way to not only manage messages, but to control user access and privileges. In an engineering and surveying firm, many employees work off site, but not all need the same access to their messages. "Some individuals get fax and e-mail read to them," he explains, "but others just get notification on their pager." Remote users can also dial directly into the company network to retrieve messages on a PC. They are not yet Web enabled to allow access over the Internet, but it's the next planned upgrade. Long says the old, unreliable system was leased for $1,100 a month, but the CallExpress system isn't much more, just $1,250 a month.
As the Frost & Sullivan unified messaging market survey showed us earlier, most of the unified messaging action is going to be through service providers, ISPs, and ASPs. Like an e-mail account with your local ISP, a service provider will supply you with unified messaging for a monthly charge ranging from $5 to $100. Some systems provide one number for all message types, with no multiple numbers or clients to remember. That number can be toll free, or with some services it's possible to use a local number or a number in the city and state of your choice. You may actually work out of your home in Nowheresville, but can have a New York City number for a more professional look. Most of these services have all the bells and whistles like text-to-speech for listening to e-mail and faxes, and speech-to-text for dictating e-mails and faxes over the phone. They also offer "find me" features that ring three to six numbers simultaneously, so you never miss an important message.
Mortgage broker Larry Denton is a LinxConnect user and says it has changed everything for him. "I recently made a change from one company to another," he explains, "and my clients would have had to delete all my old numbers and wait for me to notify them of a new number. Instead, it was and continues to be the same number." Denton uses a service called LinxConnect from Boston-based Linx Communications, which has long been supplying unified messaging to corporate clients like 3Com, Apple Computer, Ernst & Young, and Fidelity. LinxConnect is a unified messaging service for individual users or small businesses not wanting the headache of an in-house system. Prices range from $50 per month for 400 free "any use" minutes (inbound toll free, and outbound local and long distance) to $100 for 1,000 minutes.
DO YOU NEED IT?
Think about all the hats you wear and the volume of communications you initiate and receive every day. Would the ability to handle all those messages in one place make a significant difference in your productivity or your stress level? Erik Haroldson, marketing director at Active Voice, says look at your messaging volume and mix. If you depend on only one or even two types of messaging, then you don't need a true unified system. If your volume is heavy, look at how many messages you receive per day for each of the types, and then determine if there are peak hours during the day and whether it varies by type. This will help you determine what capabilities you need in a unified system and will reveal weaknesses in your current system. Lastly, look at your current hardware and software and how much of that investment can be leveraged. If you can build on an already solid base, great. But even if you have to look for an entirely new solution, the increased productivity and improved client interaction will only increase the return on your investment.