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Unified Messaging: it’s for you

Unified Messaging will help us get a handle on the barrage of messages we get each day.

The concept of Unified Messaging (UM) is hardly a new one. The idea first came about as we began using proprietary e-mail and voice-mail systems. As the number of messages increased, we wanted to find a universal way to notify users that they had an e-mail or voice mail waiting for them. But there was no compelling business need to justify the replacement of existing e-mail and voice-mail systems to better integrate messaging. We simply have tolerated multiple messaging formats and managed the ever-increasing volume of messages.

That is, until now. There are a number of factors driving us toward a day when UM becomes the norm. First, the volume of messages (of all types) has exploded along with our adoption of the Internet and more open messaging standards. Next, we are now highly mobile. Wireless technologies let us work nearly anywhere, and we certainly want messages of all types to be accessible regardless of whether we are cubicle-bound, on the road, or telecommuting in bunny slippers.

But there are other factors driving us toward Unified Messaging. We now realize that is there a lot of useful information in messages and that we need to tap into that information to increase customer satisfaction. We can also integrate messaging with business applications to increase repeat business and make better business decisions. And, we can use UM to drive workflow automation in a managed manner.

So what is this panacea known as UM? Simply put, UM integrates messages of all types, including faxes, e-mail, pager activity, and voice mail, into a single, logical inbox that is accessible regardless of where you are physically located. And you can interact with messages of all types from that single inbox. Now isn’t that better than trying to manage all those e-mail addresses, voice mailboxes, and fax numbers?

Though your singular, logical inbox may seem a real boon, there are probably many technologies at play beneath the surface. These might include text-to-speech or speech-to-text tools, fax-forwarding functionality, paging capabilities in e-mail, and more. There also should be a multidatabase configuration to store, index, and retrieve messages of all types. And business intelligence tools are likely integrated into the mix, supplying your company with a lot of useful information.

Keep in mind that the viability of UM is still budding, and there are not many readily available all-in-one solutions. But that is expected to change by 2003, when most industry analysts–including those at Frost and Sullivan, Ovum, and IDC–predict that the UM market will blossom and that the technology will become mainstream for successful companies large and small.

What’s available now

At the moment, there are three ways to implement UM: through an external service provider, by adding solutions to your existing e-mail platform, or by purchasing and implementing an all-in-one solution. Each of these approaches has benefits as well as drawbacks.

The external service-provider route to UM is well suited to small businesses and consumers. Free services that let you receive faxes and voice mail in your e-mail inbox are plentiful. Or, you can collect your e-mail via Touch-Tone phone. There are also fee-based services that offer more advanced features, such as text-to-speech, address, and calendar features. Some even let you deliver messages to several types of devices.

Examples of some of these services include XOIP www.xoip.com and eFax www.efax.com. I use the latter, and find it preferable to using a separate fax line. I also like that my faxes come right into my e-mail inbox. Google has a list of comparable services directory.google.com/Top/Computers/Data_Communications/Unified_Messaging/Services/.

External services are not a cure-all, however. If you’re concerned with security, you might not feel comfortable using a service. Also, external UM services may not integrate with all of your applications. But if you don’t want to invest a lot in equipment and software, a service-based approach is inexpensive, and a nice way to explore UM.

Businesses that have already implemented an e-mail system may find it useful to take the second path to UM–adding on functionality. Perhaps you use Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange for e-mail. You might combine your e-mail solution with a fax solution, such as Tobit’s FaxWare www.tobit.com, Equisys’ Zetafax www.equisys.com, or GFI’s Faxmaker www.gfi.com. Most e-mail solutions support pager integration already, and your Private Branch Exchange (PBX) provider probably 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, taking this approach is not as seamless as all-in-one UM solutions. Moreover, you will need to purchase, install, and maintain the different products required, as well as implement and maintain the integration needed to support UM at your company. What’s more, taking an add-on approach will require that you train both administrators and end-users on all of the products. There also are the costs of support, maintenance, and upgrades for each product you need to use.

Many attempts at UM have taken the latter approach over the past few years. Many companies have found it too cost prohibitive to sustain, but it’s not the only way to do UM in-house.

The maturation of UM products brings us to the third approach to implementing UM: the all-in-one solution. The number of all-in-one UM solutions is fairly small at the moment. Expect to see many more products arrive during the coming year and beyond as vendors realize the strong market for in-house solutions that don’t overtax users or administrators.

Vendors such as Microsoft and Lotus are working toward expansion of their e-mail platforms so that they may include built-in UM support via open standards. And other vendors bring all-in-one solutions to the marketplace in a variety of configurations, including Lucent www.lucent.com, Cisco’s Active Voice www.activevoice.com, and Topcall www.topcall.com.

Pricing will vary based upon the functionality you need. So while the UM market is just beginning to reach viability, you should determine what types of messaging you need to support and to which devices the messages will be delivered (e.g., desktops, notebooks, PDAs, WAP phones).

Redefining UM

Business-application software vendors will also get into the UM act in the coming months. Providers of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solutions, business-to-business applications, collaboration tools, business intelligence software, and many others will include hooks to various UM standards, or will develop partnerships with major UM software providers or services.

Beyond the types of messaging you need to integrate and the devices you must support, what business applications do you have that might benefit from UM? Ask your software providers how they will support UM. And examine the current workflow at your company. How will UM change it? Can it help you increase automation or improve processes with business partners?

I’d recommend a cautious approach to adopting UM products or services, given that this market is just now emerging. This is a great time to evaluate your requirements and decide how UM might improve things for you, your customers, your suppliers, and your staff.

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