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MESSAGES OF THE WORLD UNITE! Unified messaging moves into the mainstream By John Edwards "A big, fat headache." That's how David Winterstein, managing partner of Trans-Form, a management consulting firm, describes his company's old messaging infrastructure. Instead of serving as a powerful business tool, Trans-Form's messaging environment had slowly degenerated into a frustrating patchwork of technologies that forced the company's consultants to hunt across various systems to locate important messages that might arrive as voice mail, e-mail or fax. By last year, it was apparent that a radical change was needed in order to restore order and efficiency to Trans-Form's deteriorating messaging framework.
Like a growing number of businesses facing communication confusion, Trans-Form opted to toss in the towel and enter the relatively untried world of unified messaging. A unified messaging system integrates enterprise voice, e-mail, paging and fax resources, allowing employees to send, access and manage messages from a single point, such as a phone voice menu or a website. With main offices in Tampa, Fla., and New York City and more than a dozen consultants spread around the United States, Trans-Form decided that unified messaging would be a smart way to boost productivity and efficiency. "It seemed like a logical move, something that could really help us," says Winterstein.
MOBILE WORKERS GAIN THE MOST After years of development and countless broken marketing promises, vendors are finally beginning to send unified messaging solutions into the business mainstream. Major telecommunications suppliers, such as Nortel Networks Corp., Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Lucent Technologies and Siemens AG, have started offering unified messaging products and services, primarily targeting organizations with mobile workforces. These giants have been joined by an array of startups, including Premiere Technologies, AVT Corp. and Vivao PLC, all looking for a foothold in a rapidly growing market.
Unified messaging has the potential to become an essential tool for mobile workers, says Roger Walton, a senior associate analyst in the Boston office of Ovum, a London-based technology research firm. "When you travel, it really is a hard job keeping up with your messages. Having a single phone number makes it easier to keep on top of messages and for people to reach you." But Walton isn't convinced that the technology makes as much sense for office-bound workers. "It's certainly convenient and nice to have, but not quite as vital."
Nonetheless, Ovum expects unified messaging to becoming nearly pervasive in the next few years, reaching into most businesses and even some homes. By 2006, three-quarters of businesses will use unified messaging technology. Meanwhile, more than a third of households in advanced countries will subscribe to telecommunications services that include unified messaging. IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based research firm (and a sister company of CIO), forecasts that unified messaging revenues will explode from $7.6 million in 1998 to $1.9 billion in 2003.
TWO APPROACHES Unified messaging solutions come in two basic flavors: server-based offerings and subscription services. Server products integrate directly with an existing enterprise telephone system and network to provide unified messaging capabilities. Subscription services supply unified messaging functions for fees based on both the number of users and the scope of services provided. Both approaches typically allow users to search for messages either by phone or by visiting a personalized website from a desktop PC, notebook PC or personal digital assistant (PDA). Users can then select specific messages to play back or view. Most systems also provide a notification function that alerts users to high-priority messages via a pager or mobile phone. For callers, the technology means that a message left on voice mail or sent by e-mail or fax all have an equally good chance of being received by the recipient at the earliest possible opportunity.
Trans-Form was attracted to Premiere Technologies' pay-as-you-use Orchestrate service. The technology requires no up-front cost, only a monthly fee of $29.95 per user (plus 15 cents per minute for toll calls dialed by Orchestrate). "I would say that it increased productivity by at least 20 percent," says Winterstein. "People are amazed at how responsive we now are. They don't expect to be able to find you at an airport, for example. When they do, they're amazed." An added benefit to the technology is that the business cards carried by Trans-Form's consultants now list only an e-mail address and one phone number, instead of an e-mail address and separate phone numbers for company, direct, pager and fax lines. "It makes for a neater, more effective card," says Winterstein.
Although service-oriented solutions are a good fit for many organizations, other firms may use server-based products to add unified messaging to an existing telecommunications infrastructure. For example, the Bellevue, Wash., branch of professional services provider EDS opted to go with CallPilot, a server-based unified messaging solution from Nortel Networks, allowing the office to retain its investment in an existing Nortel PBX system. "CallPilot enabled us to build onto an existing technology rather than switching to something entirely new," says Craig King, the office's telecommunications supervisor.
CallPilot is currently supporting about 150 workers in the EDS Bellevue office.
Since the system has been operating for only a few months, King says it's too early to estimate cost savings, if any. The system, licensed for 25 desktop users, 25 fax users, 25 speech recording users and 1,000 voice mail users, cost $31,000, plus a $412.50 overall monthly maintenance fee. But early user feedback has been positive. "People are telling me it's making their lives a lot easier." In the meantime, King is rolling out the technology in stages, allowing users to become accustomed to a particular set of features before hitting them with something new. "We began with voice mail and then started adding fax and e-mail messaging." Coming next are speech recognition and voice menu features. "We're taking it step-by-step," says King. "That's the smart way to do it."
CHALLENGES AND CONCERNS While few observers question unified messaging's long-term potential, some worry that a handful of nagging problems could at least temporarily hamper the technology's growth. Most critically, it's believed that implementation costs will deter many organizations from quickly adopting unified messaging. "Companies have all of their existing messaging systems in place," says Ovum's Walton. "Whether or not you're a Fortune 500 corporation, it is a very big deal to upgrade." Given the large upfront cost of a server solution, big enterprises are most likely to be the ones investing in that approach. EDS's King recommends that organizations choosing a server-based solution look into unified messaging solutions provided by their current telecommunications provider. "It probably isn't a good idea to start from scratch with another vendor," he says. "When an operational problem occurs, you don't want competing vendors tossing the ball back and forth into each other's court."
In fact, interoperation gaps are a big problem for enterprises struggling to link existing e-mail, voice mail and fax systems to unified messaging products and services. Standards for interoperation between messaging platforms have not yet been widely implemented, so options for interoperation with legacy messaging systems are typically primitive or nonexistent. While Trans-Form experienced only minor problems implementing its system, the story was different for EDS. "We had a GTE technician that just about lived at our site for a month," says King. "We were the fifth CallPilot system that was installed, so it was a learning curve for everyone."
Migration barriers present yet another potential headache. When planning a unified messaging framework, organizations need to make sure that existing technologies--such as PBX, network and PC resources--are up to the job. "For example, if the PC is a dog, then you aren't going to be able to open your voice mail or faxes in a timely fashion," says King.
Still, it appears inevitable that unified messaging is destined to dramatically simplify business communication. Ovum's Walton compares the technology's arrival to the introduction of e-mail technology. "When e-mail took off, people realized that there was a whole array of things they could do that they couldn't do before. I expect unified messaging will go the same way."
John Edwards is a freelance technology writer based in Gilbert, Ariz. He can be reached at email@example.com.
SOUTHPAWS WELCOME Click with your left hand, or click with your right, Microsoft has a mouse that will work for you. The company has designed an ambidextrous version of its IntelliMouse Explorer, a "ball-free" mouse that uses an optical sensor (instead of a mouse ball) and a digital signal processor to detect movements. Since there's no mouse ball, there's no need to use a mouse pad, and the mouse can be used on almost any surface--even your pant leg.
Called IntelliMouse with IntelliEye, the switch-hitting mouse is slightly smaller than its nonambidextrous cousin but still offers five buttons and a scroll wheel. The estimated retail price is $54.95. For more information, call 425 882-8080 or visit www.microsoft.com.
BUDDY LISTS MEAN BUSINESS Instant messaging isn't just for fun anymore.
FaceTime Communications has developed a set of applications that use instant messaging for business-to-consumer and business-to-business communications.
FaceTime Instant Groups identifies a group of people by a single "buddy" name and routes incoming messages to the person in the group who is most available at the time. FaceTime Instant Email lets companies send direct marketing e-mails with embedded instant messaging links; when a customer clicks on a link, the customer is connected with a live agent. FaceTime Instant Alert lets companies send customers personalized instant messaging alerts. The applications run over public instant messaging networks, including AOL's network. Pricing starts at $500 a month and is based on the features used and the amount of usage; the applications can also be deployed onsite. To learn more, visit www.facetime.net or call 650 574-1600.
A CLEAN SLATE Donating your company's aging PCs to charity? Selling them to the highest bidder? The last thing you want to do is pass along reams of corporate secrets and private e-mails. OnTrack Data International offers DataEraser, software that scrubs PCs' hard drives clean by repeatedly overwriting the data.
DataEraser Professional Version, which can overwrite SCSI drives, is priced at $199.95; site licensing is available for corporate IT departments. DataEraser Personal Version is priced at $29.95. For more information, visit www.ontrack.com or call 800 872-2599.
TESTING, TESTING Putting an e-commerce site through its paces doesn't require asking friends and family to shop till the site drops. Watchfire Macrobot 1.0 can automatically test e-commerce and web transactions. Play around on your site--say, try to order five T-shirts in size XL and send them to five different addresses--and Macrobot will record what you did. The software will turn your commands into a test script that can be played back later. Tweak the scripts by changing the variables in a spreadsheet-like data table. Macrobot 1.0 is priced at $2,995 for a single-user license, $12,995 for a five-user license and $19,995 for a 10-user license. For more information, visit www.watchfire .com or call 613 599-3888.
CLICKS MEET BRICKS One way to marry brick-and-mortar stores to the web is to bring the web to the brick-and-mortar stores. Hypercom has unveiled an internet-enabled point-of-sale (POS) information and e-commerce platform that aims to do just that. Called ePic (for e-POS-infocommerce), the platform consists of internet-enabled POS terminals and several server software packages that connect the terminals to the internet. Hypercom also offers a service to support the ePic terminals for companies that do not want to buy, install or maintain the servers themselves.
The ePic terminals have the same secure credit card payment processing capability that one would find in a typical POS terminal. They also have web browsers loaded on them. The ePic terminals are designed for use by both retail employees and customers. An employee could use the terminals to process and fulfill orders from the store's website, to send e-mail or to electronically store and retrieve receipts, among other applications. The terminals can also show advertisements to customers (store owners get a cut of the ad revenue) and offer interactive electronic coupons or loyalty programs. The terminals cost between $400 and $800, depending on screen size and whether or not the terminal offers a color screen and sound capabilities. The server software packages range in price from $50,000 to $300,000, plus additional charges depending on the number of stores and terminals. For more information, visit www.hypercom .com or call 602 504-5000.
REVISIT VIDEOCONFERENCING WHO NEEDS TALKING HEADS?
Ten years later, videoconferencing is still a technology on the verge By Fred Hapgood From a distance, the logic of adding images to telephony seems as obvious as adding salt to soup. What could be a more natural enhancement of simple voice communications than adding facial expressions and body language? For generations the compelling simplicity of this idea has attracted ambitious engineers and visionary entrepreneurs eager to push this most obvious of inventions into the world.
Unfortunately their ingenuity and boldness has been shadowed by what is beginning to look like a curse in the spirit of Zeno's Paradox--no matter how close you get to your destination, you never quite arrive. If this trend continues, the videophone (at least as a general upgrade of the telephone) may turn into the robot vacuum cleaner of the 21st century: perpetually on the doorstep but never quite over the threshold.
The first generation of efforts, carried out mostly by Bell Laboratory and Bellcore engineers in the '60s and '70s, foundered with the discovery that a useful presentation of nonverbal language requires significant amounts of bandwidth, quality hardware, uncluttered networks and very smart--almost AI-level--compression algorithms. In the '70s this level of technology was out of reach for the general market, and the videophone was left stuck in the lab.
In the 1980s, the looming promise of ISDN catalyzed a new approach to the problem. Since the high cost seemed to rule out the consumer market, vendors focused on a niche: business meetings, especially those requiring travel.
Business travel is so expensive its accumulated cost could cover the purchase of even quite expensive technologies and still net a return, at least in theory.
This model seemed to make sense, and videoconferencing, as it was called, emerged to general applause. CIO was certainly convinced: In 1990, we predicted confidently that "an environment for significant, sustained growth in this area is about to emerge, probably in 1992 to 1993." Nor were we alone. "I thought then that by now any business large enough to have a conference room would have a VC installation," remembers Paul Zielie, engineer and president of Visual Systems Integration Group, a consulting company.
But we all overlooked the curse. According to Professor Judy Olson, a researcher at the School of Information at the University of Michigan, face-to-face meetings establish and draw their meaning from a social context, and that context cannot be communicated by facial expressions and body language alone. Typically, VC cameras are fixed at a certain direction, and the zoom is set for a standard image proximity. Viewers cannot control the camera, which often means they miss the reactions of other meeting-goers sitting off-camera, even if those reactions are quite important. Also, users have found it difficult to figure out who is looking directly at them and who is looking away. A "talking head" on a monitor, often set on a raised podium, acquires tacit authority out of proportion to his or her actual position in the corporate hierarchy. Changes in image proximity (zooming in or out) aren't connected to changes in voice volume, which can be disorienting.
Though these defects are subtle, they have made videoconferencing much less effective than hoped. While there seems to be no formal studies on this point, many believe videoconferencing installations do not lead to lower travel costs.
(Some feel the technology has actually increased costs by stimulating even more interest in face-to-face meetings.) The industry reacted to this second disappointment by targeting a less demanding application: adding value to distance communication as opposed to replacing face-to-face meetings. The high end of this sector, according to Norman Gaut, chairman, CEO and president of PictureTel, entails integrating all forms of media into a single online session: video, audio and data, real-time and archived, interactive and broadcast, with material fetched as needed from cameras, microphones, local databases, intranets and the internet. The low end, represented by web-based video, runs all the way down to 10-frames-per-minute webcams. The benefit that low-quality video brings to a call is limited but real (especially between people who do not know each other), and as the cost of these connections falls, even this technology will surely spread. (One business application that seems to be growing rapidly at the moment is distance training.) In the meantime, research continues on the old dream. University of Michigan's Olson points out that just as body language is set in a network of social interactions, so are social interactions set in an office environment. One of the advantages of physical travel is sensing this environment--whether doors are open or closed, how people are dressed and so on. Olson is addressing this need by exploring the integration of corporate lounges with "video walls." The idea is to cover a wall with thin screen monitors and put a camera in the middle and microphones and loudspeakers on each side. When these installations are connected the members of each company can see into the lounge and then down the corridors of each other's offices. (This might be called the "video water cooler.") So far the experiment looks intriguing, but Olson is cautious. She knows the curse could strike at any time.
UNDER DEVELOPMENT QUANTUM COMPUTING A QUANTUM LEAP FOR IT A phone book with randomly arranged entries doesn't sound very useful. But a powerful new algorithm could someday make such a database both commonplace and highly efficient. All that's needed is a quantum computer.
The algorithm, developed by Bell Labs researcher Lov Grover in his spare time, will be ready for use when the first quantum computer becomes available--maybe five or 50 years from now. Quantum computers work at atomic and subatomic levels to perform multiple computations side-by-side--a big leap forward from today's step-by-step-oriented electrical computers. The systems exploit the fact that under certain conditions atoms and subatomic particles can exist in multiple realities. So, unlike a conventional computer--in which bits exist in a state of either zero or one--a quantum computer's "qubits" (quantum bits) can exist in two states simultaneously. This allows a quantum computer to search different parts of a database swiftly and simultaneously.
According to Grover, a conventional computer would need to plow through a substantial number of records--perhaps a half-million or so--in order to retrieve a particular item in an unsorted one-million-record database. But a quantum computer using Grover's algorithm would only require a specific number of steps; the number of steps needed is the square root of the total number of items in the database. "For instance, in a million-item database, it takes only 1,000 steps to find the right record," says Grover.
The algorithm makes use of the counterintuitive and sometimes bizarre principles of quantum mechanics, such as the idea that something can exist in several states at the same time, depending on how or when you look at it.
"Programming a quantum computer is particularly interesting, since there are multiple things happening in the same hardware simultaneously," says Grover.
"One needs to think like both a theoretical physicist and a computer scientist."
Grover notes that the technology could also be used in other areas besides phone books and business databases. Of special interest are internet search engines, which, by their nature, need to quickly find large amounts of random information. "A quantum computer would have a clear advantage over a classical computer" in a search engine application, he says.
While the first quantum computer won't become commercially available for many years--perhaps decades--Grover says his algorithm has already been honed to perfection. "It is probably the simplest quantum algorithm," he notes.
"Therefore, the algorithm will always be of great importance, and whenever quantum computers arrive--10 years from now or 200 years from now--it will provide an application." -John Edwards