FRAMINGHAM (03/29/2000) - It's the traveling executive's dream: By dialing a single number on a cellular phone, you can hear and reply to voice mail, e-mail and faxes. Even better, the system lets you respond to messages with the same commands - browse, save, skip, forward - that are commonplace in today's e-mail and voice mail systems.
Companies can now make this dream come true. Several Internet-based service providers are introducing unified messaging offerings at affordable monthly rates. Although designed for consumers, these services are adding features for corporate customers such as blocks of numbers, number recycling and multinumber billing.
"What people want is a unified, single in-box that offers voice mail and e-mail," says Chris Selland, a vice president at The Yankee Group, a market research firm in Boston. "If I have a laptop, I can listen to my voice mail. If I have a phone, I can listen to my e-mail. That's the flexibility of access that customers want."
Until now, unified messaging has been too hard for most companies to put together. The main roadblock has been the difficulty of getting legacy voice mail and PBX systems to work with e-mail and fax systems. The appeal of service providers is that they do all the work to integrate and maintain the various messaging systems.
A major driver toward unified messaging is the growing popularity of wireless devices such as cellular telephones and handheld computers.
"The big trend is going to be Web-based or wireless phone-based unified messaging," says Megan Gurley, a research analyst with The Yankee Group.
"Companies are going to go to the wireless providers and buy this as a service.
It's going to be one of the most significant applications of the year."
Already, the top e-mail outsourcers are taking steps to expand their unified messaging offerings:
JFAX.com created a corporate sales arm in December to go after large deals for its unified messaging service, which supports integrated voice mail, e-mail and fax from one telephone number.
In February, Phone.com, which offers Internet access to wireless telephone users, bought Onebox. com, which sells unified e-mail, fax and voice mail services to carriers and portals. Onebox.com has signed up three million subscribers in the seven months since its launch.
Critical Path has purchased eight messaging vendors since last year in its bid to provide integrated e-mail, fax, scheduling, calendaring and directory services. (Critical Path doesn't offer voice mail integration yet.)In December, Mail.com acquired NetMoves, which provides Internet fax and document delivery services to more than 7,000 companies. Mail.com works with Lucent to provide voice mail support.
"We're really at an early stage in the unified messaging phenomenon," says Jay Hutton, CEO of Voice Mobility, which sells carrier-grade equipment for unified messaging. "If you believe the trend is toward e-mail outsourcing . . . then unified messaging is a natural and obvious add-on."
Industry observers predict that corporations will buy unified messaging services for applications such as sales force automation and telecommuting.
"Unified messaging is going to continue to be deployed on a very application- or workgroup-specific basis," says Bill Fallon, vice president of marketing for Mail.com's business messaging services. "A company is going to bring it up in a call center type of environment or where they have a mobile workforce where it's important for the needs of the business to unify voice, fax and e-mail."
Today, companies are buying integrated e-mail and fax services, but not voice mail. These Web-based services let users send and receive faxes from any device that supports e-mail. Users include petroleum giant Chevron, Columbia HCA Healthcare and entertainment conglomerate Viacom.
The Money Store's appraisal team in Sacramento, Calif., uses integrated fax and e-mail services from JFAX.com to capture and send lengthy documents. Sam Linowitch, a Money Store vice president, says the service offers extra security because faxes are sent as e-mails.
"Anyone in the world can see a fax that comes into one of our hard machines, but if it comes into JFAX.com, it's confidential," Linowitch says.
The JFAX.com service is also faster at handling large documents. "We may be out at a bank doing a review, and we need to have 57 pages of an appraisal file faxed to us. Before, you'd have to wait all day long to get that document. Now we just have it JFAXed to us," Linowitch says.
The service is also faster than scanning large documents into the company's databases, Linowitch adds.
Increasingly, unified messaging applications feature wireless data access. For example, AnywhereMD is beta-testing a wireless e-mail and fax service called Prescribe.net that allows physicians to write prescriptions and send them to pharmacies from a Palm VII. Prescribe.net's goal is to give physicians access to patient and drug information at the office, hospital, car and home, says Bryan Hixson, president of AnywhereMD.
"The doctor writes the prescription and sends it on a wireless connection. It comes to our server to do all the drug interaction checking and the formulary checking to make sure the drug is allowed in the patient's health care system.
Then we e-mail or fax it out to the pharmacy using [Mail.com's] service," Hixson says. "On average, the whole process takes less than one minute."
One of Prescribe.net's beta testers is Dr. Charles Maas, a pediatrician in San Louis Obispo, Calif. Maas is entering his patients' names and prescriptions into a database stored in the Palm VII, which also has a list of the common medications he prescribes and the age-based dosages.
Within a few weeks, Maas will be able to send prescriptions to the pharmacy, a change he expects will save time and avoid mix-ups. "If I write a prescription for a medicine the pharmacy doesn't have, we'll find that out right away," he says.
Still, what Maas likes best about his Palm VII is that he also can send e-mail, check the stock market and surf the Web. "I was in a meeting in Sacramento, and I needed to look up the location of a store," he says. So he used his Palm VII to access the online Yellow Pages and Mapquest to figure out the best way to get there. "It was pretty interesting."