Calling all companies

Enterprisewide unified messaging helps control message overload and improves response time by retrieving voice mail, e-mail, and faxes from one inbox.
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Senior VP of information technology Kelly Walls likes the time-saving benefits of unified messaging.

Like many suburbanites, Kelly Walls used to dread his commute, a 40-minute nightmare that lay between his home and the sprawling city of Atlanta. But all that has changed thanks to the help of a unified messaging product that lets him access faxes, voice mail, and e-mail messages from his cell phone, thereby transforming dead time into some of the most productive time in his day. "Now, instead of coming into work and spending the first 30 minutes answering e-mail and voice mail, I've already taken care of that work in the car. It's turned my commute into productive time so I'm not just sitting in traffic," he says.

The growing popularity and build-up of the area has given Atlanta the dubious honor of having one of the longest commutes in the country, says Walls, senior vice president of information technology at Royal Specialty Underwriting, a $350-million property and casualty insurance company, which is using Lucent Technologies Inc.'s Unified Messenger software.

Walls and his peers at Royal Specialty Underwriting, in Atlanta, are not the only ones steering toward unified messaging to make better use of their time. The technology essentially offers a single inbox and interface from which users can access voice, e-mail, and fax messages from their PC, telephone, pager, personal digital assistant, or other mobile devices. Typically, the client- and server-based software works with mail servers, such as Lotus Development Corp.'s Domino or Notes and Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange. Products are available as customer premise equipment applications that are owned and installed by a business or as a monthly subscription service from telecommunications firms and Internet service providers.

While the technology has been used for several years among pockets of users in a handful of companies, unified messaging is rapidly being deployed enterprisewide by medium to large companies looking for a way to better manage message overload, say industry observers.

"Dependence on messaging in general, and e-mail in particular, is growing," says Roger Walton, a senior analyst at Ovum Inc., a consulting company in Wakefield, Mass. He projects the number of active unified messaging mailboxes will skyrocket, from 20,000 in 1998 to 14 million by 2002 and to nearly 170 million by 2006. "I'm not sure the demand side of the equation is changing--that's already high. What's happening is that the barriers are being reduced," he adds.

Vanishing roadblocks

Why unified messaging?

Single repository for all messages. It allows users to go to one place to retrieve messages, saving time and money and increasing worker productivity.

Remote notification and access. Users do not have to be in their offices to be notified of new messages. With these systems, they can access messages either via telephone or laptop.

Desktop management and message control. Permits users to access messages in any order they choose, rather than in the order they were received. From PCs, they can click on a message to access/play, save, forward, delete, and reply.

Source: The Pelorus Group

One barrier that's rapidly disappearing is price. Traditional telecommunications carriers such as British Telecom, of the United Kingdom, MCI WorldCom Inc., of Clinton, Miss., and ISPs like GTE Internetworking, of Burlington, Mass., offer services typically priced on a per-user, per-month basis that range from $15 to $60.

Activity also is high on the product side. Well-known players such as Lucent Technologies Inc., in Milpitas, Calif., and Nortel Networks Corp., in Brampton, Ont., as well as specialists like Kirkland, Wash.-based AVT Corp., and Active Voice Corp., of Seattle, have rolled out software programs.

This tight integration enables companies to use the same interface, administration functions, message stores (which refers to the database that manages the messages), and directory structure to access and manage faxes, e-mail, and voice mail. This approach further simplifies deployment of the technology and lets companies leverage their investment in existing systems. Lotus Development Corp., of Cambridge, Mass., and Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft Corp. are also pushing unified messaging beyond third-party applications that support their servers. For example, Lotus is adding unified messaging capabilities to its Domino platform, including Mobile Notes, and has partnered with AVT to deliver unified messaging solutions. Microsoft has committed to supporting unified messaging in Windows 2000 and Windows CE and plans to add unified messaging functionality to Exchange server, including a high-performance Web store and support for the prevalent Voice Profile for Internet Messaging (VPIM) standard.

Because of all this activity, awareness of unified messaging and its purported benefits is on the rise. And as word spreads among users and IT administrators about productivity gains, adoption is set to explode, say analysts. The market for unified messaging customer premise equipment (CPE) products hit $145.02 million in 1999, up from $70.02 million in 1998 and is expected to soar to $6.3 billion by 2004, according to a report by the Pelorus Group, a telecommunications consulting company in Raritan, N.J. Likewise, the number of unified messaging CPE seats shipped worldwide will climb from 303,407 in 1998 to more than 2.4 million by 2004, the study indicates.

Yet some barriers to entry remain. While integration with existing e-mail systems has improved, many unified messaging products don't offer the same level of co-existence with legacy voice mail systems such as private branch exchanges (PBXes), thus requiring companies to forego their investment to take advantage of the new technology, say industry observers. In addition, since the rewards of unified messaging center around softer, hard-to-measure productivity gains, it can be difficult to sell and justify the technology to upper management, experts add.

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