Unified messaging is a new type of service that provides a single telephone number for receiving voice and fax messaging, and (usually) e-mail retrieval. Because these can be accessed from a Web-based account, it doesn't matter if it's a home PC or an internal modem line or an internal line at an office; all that's needed is a PC with Web access. Most services transmit messages from the same interface, to initiate and respond to communications without appearing any different than from the office.
There are some fairly good Web-based messaging services that are offered to individuals at no cost. Of course, these are all motivated by either fees for the advertisements shown on the service or in hopes that people might upgrade to a paying service.
What To Look For
Unified messaging applications that are accessed through a Web browser do not have the same technical criteria that many business applications do. Their compatibility with a server operating system, and its memory requirements, are not applicable concerns. The most important factors to consider when selecting a Web-based unified messaging tool are the features it offers, and how easy it is to use.
These are especially important points because this is a new product field and each vendor has a different idea of how this process should work. Of course, cost is another factor for evaluation.
Some of the components of a Web-based solution are absolute requirements, even in a free service. A messaging service always provides a number through which users can be reached; it is a personal number, like an e-mail address. A Web-based access system is also a requirement for management and retrieval of messages. Virtually everything else is up for grabs, however, as vendors cannot yet agree on a standard software design.
A Look At Messaging Services
There are dozens of unified messaging services now available; even more if this category includes those (like Yahoo! Mail) which consolidate e-mail accounts and fax, but not voice mail. We looked at a cross-section of these services, not an inclusive list, and tried to cover both free and fee-based services.
K7 is a free service operated by International Telecom (www.itltd.net), a Seattle, Wash.-based local telephone exchange carrier. K7 is supported by site advertisements, and gives users a telephone number from the Seattle area (206 area code), thus offering only local appeal. K7 can store or forward messages to your own e-mail address but does not translate voice messages to text. It stores them as .wav format files (faxes are stored in .tiff format). Messages are automatically deleted after seven days, and storage is limited to a total of 20 messages.
K7 is a very basic example of a message consolidation service. While it is truly free, its limitations are discouraging. K7 receives incoming communications, but cannot be used to send faxes or make voice calls; it doesn't even allow users to compose e-mail. K7 also lacks some of the online features that make a unified system truly act as an untethered mobile communications center.
J2, which originally used the name JFAX, offers three levels of its jConnect communications service: Free, Lite, and Premier. The basic (Free) service is essentially a sample for the full functionality that jConnect can provide -- although it compares favorably with other free messaging providers in many respects. Its chief limitation is that it cannot be used to transmit voice or fax messages. J2 Free offers the standard feature of a personal phone number which can receive voice mail and faxes, which are stored on line (up to a limit of 3MB). J2 does not provide an e-mail address, but instead makes an excellent "front end" for an existing POP3 account (your real e-mail address). Like many Web-based e-mail services, J2 can retrieve mail from other accounts, but it also lets users compose new messages that utilize that outgoing address. All versions of J2 provide a calendar as well as a contact/address book (with customizable folders).
Upgrading to J2 Lite increases the power of this service in two ways: The service can be used to send voice mail and facsimile messages, and adds a voice conferencing feature. The jSource interface handles conference calling very well, initiating all contacts selected from a contact database or number entered manually. (It does not call through the PC, but through any phone on the call list.) The upgrade to Lite costs $4.95 per month, and increases disk storage to 10MB. The final level in J2's line is the Premier, which has the same features as Lite, but ups the ante with a storage capacity of 25MB for $12.50 per month. The features added to Premier are the choice of either a toll-free or local telephone number, and a powerful tool called E-mail-By-Phone. This uses a text translator to convert e-mail messages into a computer-generated voice, so they may be retrieved from any telephone. With the E-mail-By-Phone feature, J2 provides another level of access flexibility.
HotVoice is a messaging system which grew out of Internet telephony. Its communication features are excellent, including "Always-Follow-Me", which forwards HotVoice calls to any phone (cellular, office, home). The biggest limitation of the service is that the full telephony functionality is only available by downloading an application, HotVoice Communicator. However, the message management functionality is accessible via a Web browser without the application. Like many of these services, HotVoice offers a free and expanded paid version.
HotVoice for small/medium-size businesses is an e-mail hosting service designed as an alternative to an internal mail system. It provides voice mail and fax services as well as e-mail, and is reasonably priced. For a company intending to use this service for their mobile activities, it makes sense to use HotVoice for internal messaging and calendaring as well.
LinxConnect is a fee-based service that aims at both small businesses and individuals, especially those who travel frequently. Its Web interface program, LinxWeb, is well-designed with all of the options that make a messaging service stand out. Many of its features are simplifications -- it can print directly from the Web interface menus, rather than having to save a fax document and print it after opening it. LinxConnect also has a "follow-me" option to forward calls to any phone.
However, Linx may not be the best place to start exploring unified messaging services. There is no free membership (so no sample available), and pricing can be steep. The Basic price of $20 per user per month, while high compared to other services, is only the beginning. A toll-free number with conferencing is another $60 and a Voicemail RingThru is $15 more. Every piece has a one-time setup fee, and access comes at a per-minute charge (although 500 minute packages are available). So Linx Connect is an excellent service, and worth the cost when used to its fullest extent, but doesn't really let users ease in.
Centrinity First Class
Centrinity First Class is at the high end of the product line, and very different from most of the other tools here. First Class is an illustration of the variations among unified messaging systems. It has no public free Web-based interface, but acts as an intranet server product for businesses with five to 500 employees. It provides a flexible unified messaging system with an Internet connection to consolidate incoming voice, fax, and e-mail.
Since it is internally managed, First Class has no limitations on mailbox sizes. At the same time, it has costs that are not easily measured, such as on-site server maintenance and telecommunications equipment management. This contradicts one of the specific features of messaging systems housed on the public Internet -- no internal management expense. First Class has a lot of added features, however, including internal collaboration capabilities for desktop support and application training. Clearly, it is a custom solution that is not for everyone, but worth examining.
TelePost is a modular tool with more functionality than the other products reviewed. The core of the service is the Message Center, a Web application that controls the messages picked up by users' assigned numbers, as well as those forwarded from other lines. TelePost offers follow-me capability, an e-mail address with access to other accounts, and a text-to-voice system for retrieving e-mail over the telephone.
Added features with TelePost include a Conference Call management system, Presentation Center, which provides collaboration between users, and a Ring-Me-Now service that initiates customer calls from a public Web site.
Unified messaging services are bound to grow in popularity as quickly as the variety of communications tools spreads. The available products vary so much that it is hard to pick one to fit every need. Since many of these can be sampled for free, it makes sense to shop around.
We feel that HotVoice is the best of the services available at no cost, thanks to its excellent feature set. The fact that it can be upgraded to a fee-based messaging service makes it a very safe place to start experimenting. Among fee-based services, TelePost stands out as a prototype for what other services should be evolving towards. It provides everything found in other tools, and goes beyond to provide added functionality and flexibility.
The best advice we can offer is this: check out all the services and find one that matches your specific needs.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
The following are descriptions of the elements that make up a messaging service's feature set.
Every user receives his or her own number, but each varies in the way it is assigned. Most free services offer very little choice, choosing from a particular area code, while fee-based services may provide numbers from a choice of markets, or even toll-free numbers (with a charge for calls received). To receive calls at the number assigned by a service, users must either give the number to their friends and associates, or have other numbers forwarded to it. Forwarding is generally outside the control of any unified messaging service, but has to be arranged through local telephone carriers, private branch exchanges (PBX, used within many companies), or cellular carriers. Properly set up, a person may have unanswered calls from several numbers forwarded to the messaging service.
The phone number assigned by free messaging services cannot be answered directly, but only takes messages. Most store voice mail as a PC sound file (usually .wav format), although some premium services offer translation of voice to text.
Facsimile transmissions received by a messaging service number are stored for retrieval (and optional printing) through a PC. The most common file format for faxes is .tiff. Some, but not all, message services let users send files to fax machines.
Internet telephony services let users place calls from their PC using the system speakers and microphone. Some also have the ability to set up multi-party conference calls, either using the PC or another telephone line.
Web-based e-mail services are hardly difficult to find; every search engine or news site seems to offer an alias. Like many of these, unified messaging services can retrieve e-mail from other mail servers that conform to the POP3 standard. Note, however, that public unified messaging servers may not be able to retrieve messages from an e-mail system that is on the inside of a corporate firewall.
Some services only check incoming mail, but most have the ability to compose replies and new messages. The best services transmit those messages using the return address of the POP3 service in use, so e-mail appears to come from the regular account and replies are sent correctly.
Services usually limit the number of messages or (more commonly) the space used to store them. Once this limit is reached, new messages are rejected, so with a low limit, users will need to check messages quite frequently.
A contact list or address book is more than a luxury if a unified messaging service is to act as a true mobile interface. Without the phone numbers and addresses of contacts, users are forced to carry them in a book or handheld PDA.
As a feature, an appointment calendar is not necessarily a natural part of a message system, but this bonus tool can fulfill many of the functions of handheld computers or organizers.
While Web-based access is the nature of this product line, some messaging services offer alternative interfaces, including wireless Internet access and text-to-phone, which converts the text of e-mail messages to voice so they can be heard via a phone call.