Managing the Message Mess – innovations in voice mail systems

Managing the Message Mess – innovations in voice mail systems – Statistical Data Included

Samuel Greengard

It’s 4 p.m. and you’ve just stepped off an airplane in Chicago. As you push past the boarding gate and descend to the baggage claim area, you switch on your mobile phone and instantly hear the beep of waiting messages. For the next 10 minutes, you cycle through the voice-mail and frantically try to make callbacks before chasing down your hotel room. Once there, you plug in your notebook PC, search for a local access number, and dial in to retrieve your messages. Finally, you phone the office to find out if you’ve received any faxes or important messages.

“There must be a better way,” you mutter, exasperated. All these technological tools that were designed to make life easier have suddenly conspired to buckle your brain. Even worse, there’s no way to keep the onslaught of messages organized, short of manually logging them on a notepad. As you plunk down your pager and mobile phone, and power down your notebook PC and PDA, you begin to yearn for a simpler era.

Fortunately, that era is about to arrive. Although we’re stuck with the technology, recent advances are making it easier than ever to manage the message mess. Unified communications, also called unified messaging, has quickly emerged as a way to consolidate data and voice into a single point of access. That can mean tapping into voicemail, e-mail, and faxes from an inbox on a PC, or listening to messages over the phone, or even responding to e-mail by voice using speech-to-text conversion.

No more checking half a dozen different devices and then trying to recall where you’ve squirreled away your crucial messages. “Unified messaging will play a growing role in business and interpersonal communications,” Says Laurie Golding, a senior analyst at market research firm Cahners In-Stat Group. “It is a technology that will ultimately make it easier for people to exchange messaging and more complex forms of communication quickly, effectively, and easily–regardless of where they are located.”

She notes that the current jumble of communications devices, including home phones, business phones, PDAs, pagers, PCs, and fax machines isn’t vanishing anytime soon. “But unified messaging allows individuals and companies to take control of the situation.”

From a people perspective, that’s good news. Stressed out employees aren’t exactly good news for companies, particularly during a severe labor shortage. What’s more, trying to keep track of numerous technologies translates directly into missed, lost, and mishandled messages. All those communication glitches rob a company of productivity and sap a human resources department.

Some organizations are starting to get the message. At Tulane University in New Orleans, more than 50 staff members–including those who travel to Africa, Asia, Europe, and other far-flung locales–have access to private mailboxes that provide unified communications. If they choose, they can listen to e-mail messages over the phone or check voice-mail, e-mail, and faxes through the inbox on their notebook PCs. They also can send and receive faxes through the Internet.

“There’s no need to dial into multiple accounts with multiple passwords. It saves time and makes the various technologies transparent,” states Alex Bengoa, an information systems specialist at Tulane. Although the system, which is operated by Los Angeles firm Jfax.com, has cut costs, the major benefit has been improved organizational communication. Not only can employees reach others faster, they’re able to keep, store, and retrieve important messages more quickly. “It has improved communication,” he says.

In fact, it’s clear that the demand for unified communications is growing. According to British consulting firm Ovum Ltd., more than 170 million subscribers for unified messaging will exist by 2003. The market research firm Dataquest predicts that 27 percent of low-end voice-mail systems and 50 percent of high-end voice-mail systems will include unified messaging by 2001. And a Cahners In-Stat study found that the typical professional saves 30 minutes per day by using a single mailbox for voice and e-mail.

That’s a persuasive argument for adopting unified communications within an enterprise. In particular, telecommuters and road warriors can reap huge benefits by consolidating messages. Companies like Jfax.com, OneBoxcom, Software.com, Cisco Systems, and Lucent Technologies are certainly betting that the concept will take off. And many analysts and industry observers agree.

“Unified messaging is more than just the amalgamation of information from several sources to a desktop, laptop, or handheld device’ wrote Greg Vogel in a March 2000 article for News.com. “It can be an integral business and personal communications function, particularly when it is enabled for wireless access…Unified messaging software will allow communications to reach a new level, making e-mail, voice-mail and faxes available with a quick touch of a button on a cell phone or personal digital assistant.”

For now, the biggest challenge is coping with communications devices that use different, and often proprietary, platforms. As a result, each becomes a silo of information. The end result? A wireless hand-held computer can’t receive or play voice-mail messages, and a telephone cannot receive faxes, One of the main obstacles, says Golding, is the existing circuit-switched voice network, which was designed to handle telephone calls and not data. More advanced IP (Internet Protocol) networks, which are beginning to take shape, handle data and voice simultaneously and thereby provide far greater capabilities,

That’s good news for organizations, HR departments, and individuals. For one thing, it provides intelligent routing of messages: the ability to manage data and voice messages over the same device, and the power to seamlessly respond to messages, even when they exist in a different format.

For example: While you are in Paris, you could receive a voice-mail message on your notebook PC and answer it by e-mail, sending along a Word document as a file attachment. When your recipient retrieves the e-mail message from a PC, PDA or digital phone, she can decide whether to read it or listen as the attached file is read aloud. Text-to-speech conversion (and vice versa) makes the translation between devices completely transparent. And, depending on a recipient’s device and preferences, it’s also possible to listen to a standard voice message as it is played as an audio file from within an e-mail message.

Steve Hamerslag, CEO of Jfax.com, says that a primary goal of unified communications is to make messaging “device-independent.” “Regardless of the device or access point, the idea is to tap into your relevant information at the moment you need it.” Companies like Jfax.com use the Internet to forward calls and faxes to a specified e-mail address or make them available through the phone. Armed with the right software or dial-in number a salesperson or telecommuter can listen to voice-mail messages or automatically view a fax from a PC.

Meanwhile, more sophisticated network solutions provide some intriguing possibilities. Voice-mail over Internet Protocol networks, for example, allows a person to index, store, and forward messages using a PC or handheld device, as well as the telephone. What’s more, call answering and redirecting services can automatically forward or route calls when there’s a busy signal or no answer.

The good news is that this technology makes it possible to find someone else anytime, anywhere. The bad news is that it makes it possible to find you anytime, anywhere (No more hiding behind voice-mail). Such “follow-me” capabilities allow the system to check first the office, then a home office number, and then a mobile phone. Before you begin to celebrate (or mourn), consider that unified communications is only in its infancy. Although viable solutions now exist, there is still a lack of standards and compatibility between systems and devices. What’s more, there’s the inevitable human side of things. “Part of the problem with market acceptance of unified messaging is that it means different things to different people,” says Arthur M. Rosenberg, a spokesperson for the Unified Messaging Consortium.

Still, he believes that unified messaging represents the next generation of voice-mail and corporate communication. When the consortium examined the topic in 1998, it found that 30 percent of individuals at medium and large companies expressed an immediate need for unified communications. The biggest demand was among heavy users of the telephone and fax, who need real-time access to e-mail.

Companies are beginning to take a unified approach to the problem. Not only is it a way to simplify the lives of workers, but it’s also a solution that makes dollars and sense for HR and an enterprise. Bill Wolfe, general manager of the Unified Communications Software Unit at Cisco Systems, puts it this way: “Systems need to fit the fluid way that people live and work.”

Samuel Greengard is a contributing editor. E-mail sam@greengard.com to comment.

COPYRIGHT 2000 ACC Communications Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group