Unified messaging systems are rapidly evolving from curiosity to necessity as more users recognize the benefits of a centralized system for retrieving and managing all types of messages. Although federal customers who have dabbled with the technology report substantial bumps in the road to unified messaging, they remain convinced of its potential.
Early adopters have found that the systems offer an easy-to-use, PC-based interface that lets users check voice, e-mail or fax messages then forward, delete or store them in folders. They say the systems are much easier to use than typical voice-mail menus on a telephone. For example, users can mix media by attaching voice-mail messages to e-mail messages. And when traveling, users can have their PCs read e-mail messages to them over the phone and forward faxes to a machine at their location.
Another benefit of unified messaging is notification. Systems are becoming increasingly adept at tracking down message recipients. Some systems can automatically forward calls to a cell phone or page users to let them know they have a message.
"Customers need to manage and access information away from the office," said Laura Johnson, director of product marketing at Applied Voice Technology Inc. (AVT). "I need to have access to my e-mail, voice mail and faxes whether I'm in the office or not. Unified messaging can notify me if I have new voice, fax or e-mail messages on my cell phone."
The idea is catching on. According to International Data Corp. (IDC), Framingham, Massachusetts, the mere 35,000 unified messaging mailboxes in the field last year will grow to 23.4 million mailboxes by 2003. The industry will balloon from US$7.6 million to $1.9 billion during the same period.
Confirmation of the arrival of unified messaging may come this year with product announcements from Microsoft Corp. and Lotus Development Corp. Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes are used as the foundations of many unified messaging systems, but both companies declined to discuss the subject, suggesting they may have product announcements on the horizon.
"Finally, the market is maturing," said John Wirful, president of unified messaging vendor Phonesoft Inc. "For the past year or so, it has been the early adopters. But now it is reaching critical mass. We used to spend money telling people what unified messaging is. Now, we tell them the features of our products."
Gary Newgaard, vice president of the federal region for Compaq Computer Corp., said agencies are showing interest in unified messaging. "We think it is a huge opportunity for us over the next few years, based on federal acceptance of Microsoft Exchange," he said. "Agencies will have the opportunity to save costs by taking out their PBX. This is another productivity tool that affords a reduction in cost."
Newgaard, dismissing the notion that unified messaging is nothing more than a gimmick, said he thinks the technology will prove its worth. "If [a new product] doesn't solve someone's problem, it will sit on the shelf," he said.
As digital computer technology matures, it will provide a significant boost to unified messaging. Digital technology provides better control over information than analog formats and enables systems to combine voice, fax and e-mail messages. It also lets the information technology staff support a single system while eliminating the need for a separate maintenance contract for the phone system.
Ultimately, voice messages will be all digital, carried over Internet Protocol networks. The conversion to IP telephony will mark the end of conventional analog phone systems and integrate voice and e-mail systems.
Unfortunately, few agency computer systems can provide the reliability of phone-line, dial-tone service. When customers pick up a telephone receiver, the dial tone greets them nearly 100 percent of the time. Systems that route voice traffic over the Internet are not yet so dependable.
"Once you extend service into telephonic service, customers expect dial-tone reliability," said Jorge Blanco, manager of the messaging solutions group at Lucent Technologies. "There is no way the House of Representatives will ever give up the features they have on the telephone side."
So, Blanco asserted, the House may not rush to embrace IP telephony until it is as dependable as its PBX system.
Drew Kraus, senior analyst for unified messaging and call-center technologies at Dataquest, San Jose, California, noted there is concern among proponents of unified messaging regarding the lack of robust platforms for transmitting voice data over IP networks. But he added that Compaq Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. have produced some "telephony-grade servers" -- hardware for IP telephony systems that offers reliability equivalent to that of phone systems, rather than that used by e-mail systems.
Once voice communication is handled by the same computers and networks that carry e-mail messages, the two systems will be unified. The computers and networks will not differentiate between message types, and all messages will be conveyed as digital data.
Just as mobile users were the first to embrace voice messaging, observers say the mobile workers who are driving unified messaging sales will serve as a springboard for the industry to reach a wider market.
"There are some slick things you can do with it, but there are a small set of users who can show tangible benefits from unified messaging," Kraus said. "They are mostly mobile workers. It is going to follow the way voice messaging grew. It is establishing beachheads now and will grow slowly from there."
Joe Gately, president and chief executive officer of Linx Communications Inc., said customers ultimately will base their decisions to adopt unified messaging on the cost savings accrued from managing a single device instead of three. He said government agencies are looking at the technology as a way to do business more effectively.
Mark Levitt, research director at IDC, suggested that cautious agencies may consider renting unified messaging from a host service. "The unified messaging market is being revived by the availability of hosting of unified message services," he said. "If you're not sure you need it, why not rent it on a hosted basis?"
One such service is uReach.com. Krishnamurty Kambhampati, president of uReach.com, said the service works like an answering machine. Users can compose e-mail messages from a phone, look up an address in an address book or send a voice mail as an attachment, he said. Basic service is free to users and funded by advertising. Users get 45 free minutes the first month and 30 minutes afterward.
Some federal agencies that have installed unified systems love the features but loathe the growing pains of getting the systems to work properly.
"The desktop [interface] gives us management of the voice mailbox," said Marlyn Piper-Williams, systems administrator for voice mail at the Department of Health and Human Services' Program Support Center Office. "We can file messages into folders on different topics. We can even store messages on floppy disks. And we can pick and choose which messages to check at a given time.
"If you work on projects, you can save all your messages on a given topic in the same folder," she added. "For faxes, you can call them up on the desktop, send them to a printer or transfer them to a fax machine where you are. You can also forward them to other users on the system."
Piper-Williams' office uses AVT's unified messaging product in a limited role, without the e-mail component yet, she said. Some parts of the department use Banyan Systems Inc. networks, which AVT does not support, so the department has not put e-mail on the system.
Problems came in the form of a Year 2000 patch. Although Piper-Williams said the system worked "really well" prior to a Year 2000 upgrade, it has since crashed with frustrating frequency.
Another agency has not been able to get its unified messaging system to work right because of networking problems. James St. Louis, telecommunications specialist for the U.S. court system in 7th District of Florida, said he has had problems getting the system to work properly across the court's subnetworks. Consequently, the computer department is the only office within the court that can use the Lucent unified message system correctly, he said.
"It is great. I just wish we could get it to work better," St. Louis said.
At least one system is working well. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has written its own unified messaging system which is used at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. The system, based on Lotus Notes/Domino, focuses on reaching the recipient rather than on manageability of messages.
The system monitors spacecraft that do not rate around-the-clock human attention. If the system detects a problem, it determines the best person to address it and notifies that individual.
"Most of the time, there are no humans in the loop," said Jeff Fox, senior engineer at the Energy Department's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. "We figure out how to reach the appropriate person, whether it is via pager or cell phone. [The system] figures out, based on online schedules, where people are. If the person doesn't get back in time, it will reach the next most qualified person."
The system has been so successful that the laboratory is developing a monitoring and notification product that will be offered on the General Services Administration schedule for other uses. "We customized it to our own need and added pager gateways and telephone gateways," Fox said. "It doesn't matter that it is a spacecraft we are monitoring. It could be a network."