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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.

“Companies have limited dollars to spend, and in the last few years, the focus has been on e-commerce and the Web,” explains Blair Pleasant, an analyst with the Pelorus Group and author of the report, “Unified Messaging CPE: Moving to Unified Communications.” “To say workers can save an hour a day by accessing messages in one place may not be a compelling enough argument to jump unified messaging to the top of the wish list. It’s not a must-have, but really more of a nice-to-have tool.”

On the road

At Royal Specialty Underwriting, however, the Lucent Unified Messenger system is quickly becoming a must-have for its increasingly mobile workforce. In use since 1997, Unified Messenger is available to all 200 Royal Specialty users, many of whom are insurance underwriters who travel and need to be in constant communication with brokers to provide quote information to bind a policy. “Our underwriters need to provide information quickly, even though they’re not sitting at their desks. This helps us service our brokers quickly,” Walls says. With the software, underwriters can have their e-mail read to them over the telephone and respond to e-mails with voice mail using Lucent’s text-to-speech recognition software, which reads e-mail over the phone, letting users issue commands to respond to messages and create new ones.

Selling the company on the system was easy because Royal Specialty had no prior investment in a voice mail system. Since the company chairman did not like voice mail, Walls and his crew sold him on the benefits of a centralized inbox for all communications. They got funding–approximately $60,000–for the technology with little to no pushback, says Walls. “We were at an advantage because we didn’t have a voice-mail system,” Walls says. “When you have a lot of money invested in separate voice, fax, and e-mail systems, it’s a lot of money to throw away for the benefit of an integrated inbox. Companies can continue to survive with three separate systems.”

Another benefit of Unified Messenger was its ability to tap into the administrative and directory services of Microsoft Exchange, which Royal Specialty already used for e-mail. The software, which costs around $300 per user to implement, has been a sound investment, although Walls says coming up with a specific return on investment is difficult. He estimates that busy underwriters are able to save about 30 minutes a day during commuting time alone. And, since the software uses a browser interface that looks like Exchange, Royal Specialty users required no additional training. Essentially, users dial one number on a phone and go through the standard security measures to access all messages, whether voice mail or e-mail. Then Lucent’s text-to-speech recognition software takes over, which allows them to issue commands to answer messages and generate new ones.

Goodbye mistaken identity

After an evaluation of systems in 1998, Sentinel installed AVT’s CallXpress voice mail system, which offers unified messaging. In fact, the unified-messaging capabilities were the main reason Sentinel selected the product, says Rashkovich, who declined to name the other products the company investigated. Now 180 employees in the corporate headquarters are up and running on the software with minimal training effort. “AVT provides a single interface, so as far as the user is concerned, they see only one inbox and get all messages in one spot,” Rashkovich explains. “That makes it extremely easy to use, saving time and money.”

In addition to improving real estate agents’ productivity, CallXpress has improved the response time of Sentinel’s IT support help desk. “Our group supports people from all properties and we receive all kinds of communications from the field. To be able to go into one inbox to retrieve all the voice mails, e-mails, and faxes lets us respond much quicker than if we had to look in different places,” Rashkovich says. The system, which cost around $50,000 in software licenses and another $15,000 in hardware upgrades, already has paid for itself, Rashkovich says, although he admits the numbers are hard to quantify. In the data center alone, he says the help desk staff is able to save an hour a week.

Unified messaging CPE products: the players
(1999 market share based on revenue)

Source: The Pelorus Group

Like Royal Specialty, Sentinel Real Estate Corp. did not like voice mail. However, hand-written messages were resulting in a lot of missed sales opportunities, says Emile Rashkovich, CIO for the New York-based commercial and residential real estate firm. “Our clients were frustrated because they couldn’t leave voice mail, and when messages were transcribed, there were often misinterpretations and mistakes,” Rashkovich says.

Sentinel did not encounter any integration hurdles since it wasn’t trying to synchronize CallXpress with any legacy systems, says Rashkovich. There are minor issues, however, associated with the text-to-speech recognition technology that translates e-mail messages over the phone so they can be heard. “We can listen to e-mail although it’s not always easy to recognize because the mechanical voice that transcribes the message sometimes gets confused over the more complex words,” says Rashkovich. However, text-to-speech recognition technology is improving and will continue to evolve with each new iteration of the software, analysts say.

Another benefit to consider

Fairmont General Hospital, which has been using Active Voice’s voice products and Unity unified messaging tool for about a year, ranks the ability to prioritize responses in all forms of communication as one of the technology’s primary benefits, says Fred Sartoris, telecommunications specialist for the Fairmont, W. Va., hospital. One of Unity’s standard features gives Fairmont users a list of messages and a brief descriptor, allowing them to respond in order of importance instead of in the order they were received. The hospital encountered few bumps installing the software, since the unified messaging installation was part of a larger program to replace a legacy phone system.

Even though the unified messaging capability is only available to one-fourth of the hospital’s 200 employees–primarily administrators, department heads, and people who travel–Sartoris says he would not even entertain buying a voice-mail system today that doesn’t incorporate the technology.

It’s the same sentiment at Royal Specialty, although there, all employees are making use of unified messaging. And while there are still complaints about the onerous Atlanta commute, drive time is no longer downtime–unless, of course, employees choose to check out and enjoy the traffic. //

Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer living in Newbury, Mass. She can be reached at

What’s to come: the three phases of unified messaging

Introductory phase, (1998-1999):

  • Unified messaging services are rolled out in advanced markets. Early adopters include business travelers, small businesses, and Soho subscribers, as well as heavy Internet consumers.

  • Potential market is limited because e-mail is not yet critical to many small business subscribers and most consumers. Spotty availability of services, limited marketing, and difficulties with interoperation and migration are other inhibitors.

  • Interoperation problems prevent services from providing effective enterprisewide systems for medium and large customers.

  • First generation of personal assistant and call-stimulation applications are rolled out independently of unified messaging, mainly on mobile networks.

Mass market development phase, (2000-2003):

  • Unified messaging increasingly seen as a necessity among power users in all business and consumer segments, allowing adoption to grow rapidly.

  • Improved techniques and more widespread deployment of interoperation standards reduce interoperation and migration barriers. The first effective enterprisewide services become available, providing an alternative to customer premise systems for medium and large corporations.

  • Its role in differentiating service providers spawns enhanced services with integrated personal assistants and productivity applications.

Advanced personal communications phase, (2004-2006):

  • Services are again enhanced to become true Advanced Personal Communications Services based on unified messaging interface.

  • Growth in the mass market is rapid, with many individuals in industrialized nations having their own unified inbox.

  • Enterprisewide services attract corporate marketplace, which increases investment in unified messaging products.

Source: Ovum Inc.

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