Users shrug off unified phone, fax and e-mail

The variety and ubiquity of e-mail in business, together with growing dependence on it, should be firing up the almost 3-year-old market for unified messaging.

But corporate messaging managers aren't buying technology that can collect fax, e-mail and voice mail in one box -- and may not for a while, some analysts said.

"1998 wasn't the year of unified messaging, and it doesn't look like 1999 will be, either," said Boryana Marova, an analyst at New York-based research firm Frost & Sullivan.

The technology has progressed in recent product releases such as Unified Messenger for Exchange from Lucent Technologies' Octel Messaging division, Nortel's CallPilot communications server and AVT's CallXpress, and in service offerings from the likes of Bell Communications Research and GTE's GTE Internetworking unit.

Marova said collecting all incoming messages in one box is completely logical, but the technology has been slow to catch on because such systems are tough to cost-justify. "Companies gain in productivity and time spent retrieving messages, but that's tough to quantify," she said.

And the cost of implementing a unified messaging system on top of a company's phone system is expensive compared with voice messaging and the public branch exchange, Marova said.

According to Frost & Sullivan, it costs about $US8,000 to implement a unified messaging system with four ports vs. between $4,000 and $5,000 for a similar-size basic voice messaging system.

Although he said he's impressed by some of what the technology can do, Durwin Sharp, manager of global technology architecture at Houston-based Exxon, said, "All this stuff is nice to have, but it's not imperative [to conduct business]. So economic justification is difficult."

But UK-based consultancy Ovum paints a more optimistic picture. In a study released last week, Ovum predicted unified messaging will be a $31 billion market by 2006.

Ovum's report saw the market taking off first among consumers and then among small to midsize businesses. A quarter of those smaller businesses will outsource the service, but most large companies will favor keeping a unified messaging system in-house, said analyst Roger Walton, a co-author of the report.

Finally, there's a critical mass of people who are PC- and Internet-savvy, said Jeannette Noyes, an analyst at International Data Corp.

And for Internet service providers, unified messaging has become a new way to differentiate themselves from the local services market, she said. Moreover, there's more dependence on e-mail for mission-critical functions in business and more people using these communications systems, she added.


Some users are buying in. For instance, Leatherman Tool, a multipurpose tool manufacturer in Oregon, is using CallXpress to make it easier for its 250 employees to route and access messages.

For Leatherman employees, unified mail means "controlled, secure access to information, anywhere, anytime," said Norman Coder, information systems manager at the company. Employees can focus on the data itself rather than the technology they use to access that information, he said.

The mobility of CallXpress has resulted in improved productivity and cost savings at Leatherman, Coder said, "although they are difficult to quantify precisely."

But Marova said vendors will need to come down in price and add functionality on top of the unified in-box.