As telephony continues shifting from the traditional circuit-switched approach to packet-switching using Internet Protocol (IP), the unified messaging market stands to benefit two ways. First, organizations replacing old-style private branch exchanges (PBXs) with voice over IP (VoIP) technology are
likely to look at unified messaging at the same time. Second, combining voice and data on a single IP network opens up new possibilities for what is increasingly being called unified communications.
“”Typically, most enterprises consider an upgrade of their messaging platform when they upgrade their switching,”” observes Ronald Gruia, enterprise communications program leader at research firm Frost & Sullivan Canada in Toronto. So as IP telephony grows, unified messaging has better odds of getting on enterprise customers’ radar screens.
This does not mean unified messaging vendors are relying solely on VoIP to propel their sales. Gruia notes that major vendors are offering unified messaging tools that work with traditional PBXs and separate data networks as well as with IP systems.
If VoIP is helping unified messaging, UM is also returning the favour. The ability to do things like putting voice mail and e-mail together in a single in-box is one attraction of a unified voice and data network. “”When you look at the justification for IP, people mention productivity applications, and that’s when UM usually gets mentioned,”” Gruia says.
While the momentum VoIP seems to be gaining may help get enterprise users reviewing their telecommunications infrastructure, IP has something else to offer too. By bringing voice and data together on a single network, it will make it easier to develop all sorts of applications that bring the two together — including unified messaging and variations on that theme.
This is not to say a single network is the only option. There is a myth, Gruia says, that unified messaging means voice messages, e-mail and faxes are stored in one place and that this implies a single network for voice and data. But Frost & Sullivan defines unified messaging as the ability to pick up voice messages, e-mail and faxes from one client interface. That needn’t mean they are stored together — the unified client may retrieve e-mail from an e-mail server and voice messages from a voice message server, for instance. A UM client may even integrate messages from multiple voice or text servers.
Customers don’t want to replace existing messaging systems, says Tracy Fleming, convergence specialist at Avaya Canada Corp. in Markham, Ont. They want to pull together information from existing message stores.
IP MAKES IT EASIER TO ACCESS MESSAGES FROM ONE CLIENT
Gruia adds that architectures using a single message store have advantages and will probably prove most popular in the long run. Even then, he adds, running voice and data over a single IP network is not strictly required.
However, building applications that unify voice and data is somewhat easier if both travel over the same network.
“”IP has brought the economies of scale of all the devices that sit on IP networks to the table,”” says Brantz Myers, national manager of enterprise computing at Cisco Systems Canada Inc. in Toronto. It becomes easier to offer access to all messages through a commonly used client like Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Domino, and applications such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) can be tied in with an IP messaging scheme, Myers says.
A modular message architecture can make good use of an underlying IP network, Fleming at Avaya says. For instance, Tony Gallagher, product director for messaging at Dallas-based Intervoice Inc., says his company’s current unified messaging application is aimed at telecommunications carriers, and is too complex to adapt easily to business customers. But with the evolution of technology, including IP, Intervoice expects to be able to develop a simpler, more modular offering for the enterprise market.
SENDING MESSAGES TO THE USER’S CURRENT LOCATION
Gallagher adds that Intervoice is working on applets — components that can be pieced together in various ways. These might, among other things, help Intervoice enhance its interactive voice response (IVR) systems with features allowing callers to request documents and have them read out over the phone using text-to-speech technology or faxed to them.
The applications Gallagher talks about go beyond a single inbox for e-mail, voice mail and faxes. Gallagher doesn’t think there is a viable market in the long run. Early unified messaging products have been aimed primarily at the well-heeled executive who is a frequent traveler, says Gallagher, but not enough of those people actually use the technology.
Intervoice’s plans to add unified communications capabilities to its IVR offering are an example of the evolution toward something more than just messaging. Another example of this, Gruia says, will be the combination of unified messaging with a “”find me, follow me”” feature that directs messages to wherever the user is.
More intelligent networks will also be able to do things like recording a message in one location and then transferring that message to the recipient’s location when traffic between the two points is light, says Fleming.
Himanshu Sahu, senior manager of marketing at 3Com Canada Inc. in Markham, Ont., says the ability in 3Com’s unified messaging system to pause in the middle of listening to a message and return that call, then go back to where you left off in the incoming message, is convenient for people on the road.
Some say that by the time unified messaging really takes off, it will have morphed into unified communications. Gallagher says products have failed in the past because they concentrated too much on the single in-box concept. “”What we’re trying to do is give someone on the move access to something that they can’t get easily.””
A good deal of activity in unified messaging today is focused on speech, Gruia says. This takes two forms. One is a growth in text-to-speech capabilities, meaning e-mail messages can be “”read”” to a person using a telephone. That makes it possible to, for instance, pick up both e-mail and voice messages from a cell phone while driving to work. Some systems can even summarize a long e-mail down to about a paragraph and read that, Myers says.
The other side of the coin is speech recognition, including both voice commands and the ability to dictate e-mail messages from a telephone. Dictation is in its infancy today, but Myers predicts that within a couple of years a cell phone user will be able to dictate a message while driving a car with the radio on and get acceptable results.
CARRIERS STARTING TO TARGET THE MASS MARKET
Future evolution could add more intelligence to help users schedule meetings and do other tasks, Gruia suggests.
Telecommunications carriers may also have a larger role to play in the future of unified communications. Rob Collins, director of marketing at Vancouver-based Voice Mobility Inc., which sells unified communications technology to carriers, says telcos in the past have had a hard time selling the benefits of unified messaging to their customers. That was partly because they offered it as “”a huge thing with a four-page brochure,”” he says. Collins believes carriers need to break unified messaging down into bite-sized chunks, just as they offer an assortment of simple, easy-to-understand calling features such as call display, call answer and distinctive ring.
For example, he says, a carrier might offer the ability to convert incoming faxes into e-mail messages for a couple of dollars a month.
Collins believes there is a window of opportunity for companies like his to sell unified messaging technology to carriers in the next couple of years because many telcos today use aging Lucent Sierra systems to offer voice-mail services to their customers, and manufacturing of those systems is scheduled to cease at the end of 2004.
Gallagher argues there is a potential market for unified messaging in the small and home office, if carriers offer low-priced services that appeal to those customers. So far, he says, carriers have focused on the enterprise market, but that may be changing. Rather than try to sell high-priced services to a limited number of wealthy buyers, he says, carriers are now seeking ways to get large numbers of subscribers using their telephones just a little more. By offering a service that lets a small-business owner or even a consumer pick up e-mail along with voice mail through a telephone interface, a mobile carrier might get that person to make an extra one- or two-minute call each week, he says. “”Everybody does that, and they make a vast amount of money.””