Simplifying communication

Unified messaging is hardly a new concept. As early as the days when people first used proprietary e-mail and voice mail systems, they wanted to find a universal way to be notified when they had a message waiting.

Unified messaging systems integrate messages of all types — including faxes, e-mail, pages and voice mail — into a single inbox that is accessible regardless of where you are. The user can interact with messages of all types from this inbox.

In the past, there was no compelling need to replace existing e-mail and voice mail systems just to better integrate messaging. We simply tolerated multiple messaging formats and the ever-increasing volume of messages.

Today, however, a number of factors are driving agencies toward unified messaging. First, the volume of messages has exploded as Internet communication has increased and open messaging standards have been more widely adopted. To deal with disparate message types, agency staffers need to access multiple means of communications — telephones, computers, fax machines or pagers — and so the time needed to complete those tasks has increased dramatically.

For example, a study conducted by ComGroup and Captaris Inc., formerly AVT Corp., found that those who used unified messaging completed those tasks in less than half the time it took for those who used traditional means.

Wireless technology is also leading agencies toward unified messaging solutions. Wireless communication is everywhere, and to keep on-the-go staffers as productive as possible, unified messaging solutions are expanding to enable universal access to voice mail, e-mail, faxes and pages from a variety of mobile devices.

Unified messaging also potentially can enable agencies to integrate messaging with applications. By blending messaging and process-focused software, workflow can be further automated and the availability of information streamlined while costs are reduced.

Agencies that dismissed the technology within the past few years will discover that not only have unified messaging solutions matured significantly, but the number of solutions has increased dramatically.

Also, although unified messaging was once considered prohibitively expensive, prices have dropped as the technology has become more widely available. For example, the ComGroup/Captaris study found that the average unified messaging system pays for itself within 68 working days.

Technology Defined

The unified messaging solution may incorporate several technologies, including interactive voice response systems, text-to-speech or speech-to-text tools, fax forwarding functionality, paging capabilities in e-mail and more. The end user, who only accesses one outbox for all those capabilities, should be unaware whether one or several technologies are at play.

Information technology administrators, though, have a different perspective because they must manage multiple database configurations to store, index and retrieve all types of messages. Also, administrators may need to look into business intelligence tools, such as data- and text-mining software, for searching and organizing information across messaging systems.

There are three ways to implement unified messaging today — through an external service provider, by adding solutions onto an existing e-mail platform or by implementing an all-in-one unified messaging solution. Each approach has benefits and drawbacks.

But deploying unified messaging in-house need not be a daunting task. The latest products make it easier to integrate messaging systems, rather than set up links so users can jump from one application to the next. Meanwhile, the administrative work required to set up the systems is decreasing. Industry groups, such as IDC, Ovum Ltd. and Frost & Sullivan, expect widespread implementation by mid-2003.

Pluses and Minuses

Using an external service provider for unified messaging will suit agencies that want to deploy solutions rapidly. Services are available today for sending and receiving faxes and receiving voice mail and pages in a user's inbox. Or users can collect e-mail and voice mail messages via touchtone phone. Several services also offer more advanced features, such as text-to-speech or delivery of messages to multiple types of devices. Some of these service providers include K7.net Unified Messaging, Tornado Electronic Messaging System and eFax.com.

If security is a concern, using an external unified messaging service might not be the best option. Moreover, these services might not integrate with your agency's applications. But if you don't want capital equipment and software investments, a service-based approach is an inexpensive way to go.

Testing external unified messaging service providers is a good way to understand the technology and determine what implementation route is best for your agency.

Agencies that already have an e-mail system may find it useful to take the second path to unified messaging — adding functionality. Say you're using Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes or Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange for e-mail. You might combine your e-mail solution with a fax solution, such as Tobit Software's FaxWare, Equisys' Zetafax or GFI Ltd.'s FAXmaker. Most e-mail solutions already support pager integration and your PBX provider likely supports integration with either your network or your e-mail platform. Each PBX is a little different, so you'll need to check with your provider.

However, this form of unified messaging is not as seamless to administer and use as an all-in-one unified messaging solution. IT administrators will need to buy, install and maintain the different products required, and also implement and maintain the integration needed to support unified messaging over time.

What's more, taking an add-on approach will require that you train both administrators and end users on all of the products being implemented. Then, there are the costs of support, maintenance and upgrades for each of the products.

Many agencies making early attempts at unified messaging have used this second approach during the past few years and have found it too costly to sustain. The evolution of unified messaging products, however, has brought us the all-in-one solution.

Vendors such as Microsoft and Lotus are working to expand their e-mail platforms so that they may include built-in unified messaging support via open standards. But there are also other vendors, such as Lucent Technologies; Active Voice LLC, a subsidiary of NEC America Inc.; and Topcall International AG, that are bringing all-in-one solutions to the marketplace in various ways.

The types of all-in-one solutions are few at this time. However, expect to see more products arrive over the next year. Pricing will vary depending on the functionality you need.

Application software vendors will also get into the unified messaging act in the coming months. Providers of customer relationship management solutions, business-to-business applications, collaboration tools, business intelligence software and many others will include hooks to various unified messaging solutions or develop partnerships with major unified messaging software providers or services.

Widespread use of unified messaging is not a matter of if, but when. As the messaging market grows stronger, an agency without unified messaging will lag behind those with the technology in terms of productivity, workflow automation and integration capabilities.

Biggs is a freelance writer and senior software engineer based in California.

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Unified messaging solutions

Unified messaging combines all messaging activity, such as voice mail, e-mail, fax or pager, into a single inbox that users can access regardless of where they are.

All-in-one solutions

Pros — Multiple access points, such as phone, Web browser or e-mail. Tightly integrated communications modules. Can integrate with agency applications.

Cons — Initial capital investment. Training and support costs. Limited number of products and services. Added synchronization tasks required.

E-mail add-on solutions

Pros — Preserves existing e-mail investment. Easy to add and remove unified messaging functions. Modular and can be tailored to meet budgetary constraints.

Cons — Not always well integrated. Training and support costs. Ongoing maintenance and upgrade costs for multiple components.

External service providers

Pros — No initial capital expense. No administrative requirements. Minimal staff training needed.

Cons: Sensitive data stored externally. Loss of security or unexpected downtimes. May not integrate with agency applications.

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