UPDATE: Compaq, NEC Offer Free Messaging

A free unified messaging service targeted at small and medium-sized businesses was announced today by Compaq Computer Corp. in partnership with TelePost Inc.

The free service, Message Center Lite, allows a customer to store all voice-messages, e-mails and faxes in a central location and check the messages via a Web browser. Messages can also be answered and forwarded via the browser.

TelePost, based in Santa Clara, California, owns and hosts Message Center Lite as well as other services that will be available at a cost. The company, which is privately held, is financed by several European investors, the largest being the Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor AS.

Office Depot Inc. is among the U.S. partners involved in the offer. TelePost pays these partners a commission for every customer who upgrades beyond the free Web-access service to the other messaging services.

TelePost expects many customers to upgrade to gain the ability to access e-mail messages via the phone, according to Bill Hopps, executive vice president of marketing and business development at TelePost. Text-to-speech technology is employed so that e-mail messages can be read aloud to customers, who also can direct faxes to the nearest fax machine.

TelePost gives customers a special phone number through which they can receive faxes as well as forwarded, unanswered phone calls. If a customer is located within 12 of the nation's large area codes, the assigned phone number will be local.

The messaging offering is one of several services in Compaq's online store, where businesses also can buy help to establish an Internet presence and get started in electronic commerce.

NEC America Inc. also announced a unified messaging service today, but one based on a technology different from Compaq's. Whereas Compaq relies on the computer infrastructure, NEC centers its service on its PBX phone systems. A PBX system is a private phone system allowing communications within a business and between the business and the outside world.

The messaging service will be delivered as part of the company's NEAX systems, and systems already delivered can be upgraded.

NEC America, based in Irving, Texas, bases the service on Unity 2.1 Unified Messaging Solution from Active Voice Corp. The Unity server connects to the NEAX platform.

So far, only customers using Microsoft Corp. Exchange can use the Unity system. All types of messages, whether voice, e-mail or fax, will appear in the Microsoft Outlook in-box with a distinctive icon.

A version for Lotus Notes, from Lotus Development Corp, will be ready in December or early first quarter next year, according to Ken Riggs, product line manager at NEC America.

The price for the unified messaging service will be from 100 to 300 dollars per "seat," Riggs said.

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