Centralized, Universal Messaging Gets Real

SAN MATEO (06/01/2000) - The theory of UM (unified messaging) has been tossed around for many years as a way to combine voice, fax, and e-mail communication in one centralized mailbox. But with growing demand for access from increasingly mobile employees, enterprise companies are beginning to cast a more serious eye on the technology.

And as wireless and other messaging technologies become widespread, UM technologies are evolving. Traditional UM vendors, which sell infrastructure to enterprises, are finding themselves challenged by Internet-based UM companies that are offering a range of services from free voice mail and fax capabilities to message alerts and Internet call screening under the broader term of UC (unified communications).

"I think that in the next couple of months what you'll see is that it [will] become painfully obvious that the market is going to the Internet," said Eric Arnum, editor of Messaging Online, in New York. "The Internet will be the hub, and all these [access] devices will be spokes off the Internet. [UM] is changing from an equipment-oriented business to a service and ... from a very expensive equipment service to essentially a free service."

The technology is also advancing, addressing some of the major sticking points of UM, notably the need for a second e-mail address or phone number that's separate from enterprises' existing systems.

Mediagate Inc. next week will unveil its iPost UM solution, which includes technology that "enables a provider to allow its subscribers to retain their own e-mail address," said Farooq Hussain, president of Mediagate, in San Jose, California. "Most users are managing [messages] from a central location, and the way you can deliver the widest variety of services and the most flexibility is to allow users to retain their email account and use a Web interface to manage their preferences."

Arnum also sees the advances made in "multimedia messaging" on the consumer side of the market -- such as animated e-cards or e-mail messages that include HTML, video, and music clips -- as a premonition of what may be coming in the enterprise space.

Not surprisingly, some of the larger UM companies disagree with this vision of service-provider UM solutions taking over the enterprise world. Joe Staples, executive vice president of corporate marketing at Kirkland, Washington-based AVT Corp., said the move toward UC is a boon for equipment-based UM vendors because it allows them to take advantage of their systems' integration with other business resources. This moves the technology beyond simple store-and-forward services to more interactive services such as managing live contacts and allowing outbound calls without leaving the UM mailbox, he said.

"One of the things we try to focus on is that work should be an activity and not a location," Staples added. "I shouldn't be tied to great tools for managing communications and messages only when I'm sitting in front of a 19-inch monitor at my desktop. I should be able to do that from a two-way pager, a WAP [Wireless Access Protocol] phone, a wireless PDA [personal digital assistant]."

The pending wireless explosion has created more interest in UM, as has the maturation of networks and UM products and support from industry heavyweights such as Lotus Development Corp. and Microsoft Corp. Most vendors, including Lucent Technologies Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. -- which recently announced a five-phase UC strategy involving its IP-based uOne UM technology -- have wireless access at the top of their UM list, closely followed by presence tracking, which is also known as "find me/ follow me" services.

Cisco will eventually add content access and delivery services to its IP messaging and communications, letting service providers offer services such as intelligent agents and automated speech recognition, said Bill Wolfe, general manager of Cisco's Unified Communications Software division.

Lucent will add find me/follow me capabilities and new voice-mail features to its unified messenger by year-end, said Vincent Deschamps, general manager and vice president of unified messaging at Murray Hill, New Jersey-based Lucent.

Lucent will also spin off and rename its New Enterprise Network Group to focus on e-communications applications, while Lucent will handle the infrastructure.

"What will drive [UM] more rapidly is whether or not a business believes its [UM] infrastructure is 99.999 percent reliable," Deschamps said. "You don't take your phone system down for a half hour in the evening. The investment in infrastructure is to make it reliable, and that's a key in how quickly one business over another will implement it."

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