Hands on: Another unified messaging puzzle piece

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When I was 6 years old, I was fascinated with Dick Tracy’s video-phone watch. That fixation may actually have been with something a little larger: the promise of unified messaging.

OK, I wasn’t that nerdy as a kid. At that age, I was thinking more about baseballs and bicycles than about combining technologies. Still, Dick Tracy’s watch seems to indicate that techies’ yearning for unified messaging predates computers.

Needless to say, we’re still yearning.

But this is not to say some progress has not been made. Those who choose to can manage e-mail, phone logs, voice messages and even faxes from within programs such as Microsoft Outlook and Novell Groupwise.

A couple weeks ago, I got a look at another missing piece of the unified messaging jigsaw puzzle. Telvita has come out with a slick integration of telephone functionality — including conference calls — into your computer.

The only hardware component of the Telvita service is a Fidelio Omni USB telephone. Once you’ve installed the Telvita software you can use the USB phone for standard telephone calls and for voice-over-IP calls. Telvita makes lining up a private telephone number for the phone easy so that those outside your Fidelio network can call you wherever you take your Fidelio telephone.

Making standard long-distance calls requires you to register an account and prepay using a credit card.

But the real advantage of the Telvita service, of course, is its voice-over-IP capability.

Open your Fidelio names directory and you’ll find a list of everyone on your network. The listings may also include photographs and background information on individuals. Click on the entry for the person you want to call and pick up your phone. If you want to make a conference call, click on more entries.

The software keeps a detailed record of each call, including a date/time stamp, the number called and the duration of the call.

But that’s not all. The Fidelio system goes beyond simply placing voice-over-IP calls. Calls can also be recorded with a click of the mouse, and it takes only a couple more clicks to send voice messages to others on your Fidelio network. You can even use the system to share your computer desktop with others during a call. That means you can, for example, run a slide show for everyone on the conference call.

In short, Telvita combines the functionality of an office telephone with that of a Web conferencing system, and costs stay low because the calls can be placed via the Internet. It’s worth noting, that the Fidelio desktop-sharing system doesn’t offer some of the advanced features of Web conference products, such as participant polling and whiteboarding.

No, Telvita hasn’t squared the circle of unified messaging. For one thing, access to the network is tied to the USB phone, and it’s not something you can slip into your pocket. But the service represents a significant step in that direction.

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