Each morning, Kelly Walls spends 45 minutes driving through Atlanta traffic to his job as CIO at Royal Specialty Underwriting Inc. (RSUI), a liability, casualty and special-property underwriting firm. But instead of considering the commute dead time or, at best, a chance to make a few business calls, Walls spends the time zeroing out his e-mail, fax and phone messages. "I receive 75 to 80 messages a day, so it's good to arrive with a clean in-box," says Walls. "I can immediately engage in productive work rather than playing catch-up with messages."
Like thousands of other companies, RSUI uses a unified messaging (UM) system to provide employees with one source for all business-related communications. While such systems have been hyped for years, it finally looks as though the technology is showing enough maturity for widespread deployment. Companies are employing various strategies to negotiate UM's biggest roadblock - integration - and now the technology is being implemented to increase productivity, cut IT costs and streamline operations.
Essentially, UM provides a universal mailbox for voice, e-mail and fax communications. Users can manage, review or respond to messages using a PC, wired telephone, wireless phone or handheld computer, regardless of the type of device used to create the original message.
But until recently, the corporate world hasn't been scurrying to implement UM. The Pelorus Group, a market research firm in Raritan, N.J., that specializes in the telecommunications industry, counted 9,000 UM system sales in 1999 and a total of 556,000 seats.
"The problem is getting unified messaging systems to interwork with the rest of the messaging infrastructure," says Roger Walton, an associate analyst at Boston-based Ovum Inc.
In its early days, an absence of standards and the explosion of proprietary voice-mail and e-mail systems severely limited the deployment of UM. Nowadays, however, Microsoft Corp. claims 68 million e-mail seats and Lotus Development Corp. claims more than 75 million. Avaya Inc. in Basking Ridge, N.J., boasts 120 million installed voice-mail boxes, and Brampton, Ontario-based Nortel Networks Corp. claims that its CallPilot private branch exchange (PBX) system integrates with 80% of existing PBXs. While this may not resolve all integration issues, it appears to be less of a problem now.
Further improving the interoperability equation is Voice Profile for Internet Mail (VPIM). VPIM is a standard profile of SMTP/MIME that allows the interchange of voice, fax and e-mail messages among messaging systems. This standard specifies how messages are exchanged between mail servers - not how these servers interact with client applications or the way they interface with the end user. In effect, VPIM resolves long-standing difficulties in transporting messages between disparate voice-mail systems and enables inexpensive transport via TCP/IP over the Web. What does this mean to the end user?
"There is no doubt that unified messaging saves time on administration and messaging," says Bob Brumm, a senior telecommunications specialist at Teco Energy Inc., a Tampa, Fla.-based holding company for a group of energy-related businesses, including Tampa Electric Co. and Peoples Gas Systems.
Teco has two years of experience with UM. More than 2,550 Teco employees use Nortel's CallPilot as a single window into multiple messaging platforms. CallPilot is basically a server-based voice mail system with added modules, depending on needs. Customers can, for example, view fax/e-mail messages via e-mail, scroll through voice messages on a cell phone or forward faxes to specified numbers.
According to Dave Moore, director of advanced applications at Nortel Networks, CallPilot integrates with any PBX from Nortel, Lucent Technologies Inc., Siemens Corp. or Mitel Corp. It also functions with e-mail clients such as Microsoft Exchange, Outlook, Lotus Notes, Netscape Messenger and Eudora Pro.
Brumm says one Windows NT server can handle 20,000 CallPilot boxes. He estimates the cost of deployment for voice mail and UM at around US$200,000 per server. Moore estimates $200 to $1,000 per user, depending on the size of the site and the range of services.
When Teco first implemented UM, it experienced some integration problems. For one thing, the company's previous voice-mail system, from Lucent Technologies in Murray Hill, N.J., didn't integrate with its network of Nortel switching systems. Consequently, Teco changed to a Nortel PBX. Further, CallPilot initially couldn't interact with the company's Novell GroupWise e-mail system, but Teco went ahead, having been promised greater functionality on future releases.
Brumm says his Open Database Connectivity-compliant UM system has few integration issues. Users can log on via a desktop system or laptop to read voice mail, e-mail messages and faxes. Via cell phone, users receive voice mail and are informed about faxes or e-mail.
Ease of installation is a further sign of UM maturity. Brumm reports that it took one day to install a new CallPilot server and five minutes per user to load the application on the client side.
Piggy Backing Exchange
Avaya takes another approach to minimizing integration hassles: piggybacking unified messaging on the Microsoft Exchange platform. RSUI, for example, has 170 users on Avaya's Unified Messenger for Microsoft Exchange. Its text-to-voice function means that e-mail and fax can be heard via cell phone.
"As underwriters live and die by messaging, the system definitely saves users a significant amount of time each day," says Walls. "And as far as maintenance goes, unified messaging is almost invisible."
With the arrival of Exchange 2000, Windows-based UM may be in a position to challenge the traditional reliability of voice-mail servers. According to Marty Parker, Avaya's vice president of strategy, the combination of Windows 2000, Exchange 2000 and VPIM makes UM far more attractive. As UM supports Active Directory and Microsoft Management Console, administrators have a single interface for voice and e-mail. If an employee's name changes, for instance, one Active Directory update handles both voice mail and e-mail.
Unlike the situation a couple of years ago, Exchange users now have an easy task setting up UM. It took RSUI several weeks for its first UM installation, for example, while two recent installations in remote offices took only one day. Walls also recommends spending about 30 minutes per user on system education to maximize return. The cost? RSUI's most recent installations came to about $75 per seat for software and around $50 to $70 per seat for implementation and training. For larger enterprises, add another $100 per seat for additional servers, says Parker.
In addition to server-based systems, UM comes in another distinct flavor: subscription-based messaging. Subscription-based messaging follows the application service provider model, providing services via a browser. But why outsource messaging?
"It's just too much hassle to hook it all up ourselves," says Charles Whitener, national sales director at Albuquerque, N.M.-based Primerica Financial Services, a subsidiary of Citigroup Inc. "We prefer to focus on our core competencies, not IT."
Primerica uses Orchestrate 2000, a UM system from Orchestrate.com, a division of Voicecom, which is a subsidiary of Ptek Holdings Inc. in Atlanta. Whitener estimates that Primerica has 70,000 users onVoicecom's Voice-Tel voice-mail system, 10% of whom use Orchestrate. Whitener says he's particularly pleased with how it helps employees stay connected while on the move.
As a sales manager, Whitener uses UM to send group e-mails and faxes and to make conference calls. Like some server-based systems, Orchestrate 2000 comes equipped with text-to-speech capabilities, allowing Whitener to spend 90 minutes each day in the car answering e-mail, faxes and voice mail. All it takes is a short phone call to add new users to the network. Whitener estimates a total time savings of two hours per day.
Until now, most UM users have fit the small office/home office profile or represented small units within large companies. But within a few months, hosted UM will be ready for large-scale, corporate deployments due to upcoming releases such as calendar/contact/handheld synchronization, Wireless Application Protocol access and mail-client support.
"Look down the road a year or two, and unified messaging becomes a must-have," says Brumm.
Although research firm Ovum placed total UM revenue at only $300 million for 1999, it predicts an explosion to about $4 billion within five years, with three-quarters of all businesses using UM. Why? Simply put, UM shaves valuable minutes off time spent daily on messaging and IT support. When a company crunches the numbers, UM becomes difficult to resist.
For instance, one study by The Radicati Group Inc., a consulting and market research firm in Palo Alto, Calif., found that support for UM averaged $208 per user, compared with $708 per user in companies administering separate e-mail, voice-mail and fax systems. Furthermore, users saved anywhere from 25 to 38 minutes per day as a direct result of more efficient message handling.
Robb is a freelance writer in Tujunga, Calif.