Guest column: Unified messaging: The cure for message overload?

Unified messaging is no panacea. Trying to solve a messaging overload problem by making it easier for people to send and receive messages is like trying to solve traffic problems by building more roads. When cities build more roads, more people use them and they quickly get just as congested as before. With unified messaging, instead of people spending less time managing their messages, everybody will end up sending even more messages and the ultimate problem -- not enough time to read and respond to all these messages -- will get worse.

Unified messaging is overhyped and poorly understood. High expectations were set early on, and these expectations have not been met. Unified messaging products are complicated to develop, encompass a range of technologies from different industries, and require acceptance from skeptical customers who are used to buying separate products for each of their messaging needs.

Unified messaging will be expensive to buy, install and maintain. Training and significant mind-share from senior management will be required. The more options unified messaging has, the more time it will take to train users, resulting in a slower adoption rate. Compare that to continuing with tried-and-true messaging, and many customers will wait it out until the technology matures.

Rather than tackling all-inclusive messaging, unified messaging vendors should focus on the messaging types that would benefit most from integration - voice mail and e-mail. Tying the two together so you can access e-mail from a telephone and voice mail from your e-mail inbox would be a productivity gain. Paging and faxing can be added later.

But is all this just science fiction? Until now it has been, fuelled by the hype of unified messaging vendors and the media.Challenges remain. One is that vendors tend to have e-mail or voice expertise, but not both, so strategic relationships among vendors are necessary. Because they lack the necessary sales and support channels, mail vendors that acquire voice technology and try to produce a system won't stand a chance. Voice vendors can better integrate e-mail and use their sales and support infrastructures to promote the technology.

Here's another obstacle: The voice market is slow to adapt to new technologies. Getting a company to replace its telephone system is a major challenge.

Unified messaging is new and exciting because it has promised to be a messaging cure-all. That kind of hype killed artificial intelligence when the technology couldn't deliver, and it would be a shame to see that happen here. Without the right early focus from the right type of vendors, unified messaging will languish as another promising technology that never happened.

Greene is president and founder of Ipswitch, an Internet applications software vendor in Lexington, Massachusetts. He can be reached at +1-781-676-5704 or roger@ipswitch.com.

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