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Special reports - All together now - October 1999
Ian Murphy looks forward to the day when collecting messages will be easy and avoiding them, inexcusable.

On a daily basis most people receive a mix of phone calls, phone messages, emails and faxes. Yet the management of this information is often done by very different mechanisms to the telephone and the computer. Each mechanism has developed its own way of functioning and, ironically, it has been the SOHO market which has actually been at the forefront of some of the convergence of approaches.

Leaving messages with computers

The telephone system that we use today is extremely complex and anyone in business often has several numbers on which they can be contacted. There is the office switchboard, the direct dial number, the mobile number, the pager number, the fax number and the messaging service number. For those high enough up the corporate ladder, most incoming calls will be routed through to a secretary or personal assistant and this often means that a private or limited access number is also in use.

Should you receive a call on any of these numbers and not be there, then it may be routed to an answer phone, a voice mailbox, a messaging service or even an assistant. The latter two are the least stressful for callers as they result in the message being passed to a human being rather than left in a technological wilderness. Despite the widespread use of computers, people are still unhappy about relying on them for important issues such as message passing.

Having left a message, the next step is to wait for the recipient to collect that message and this may be harder than you think. Frequent travellers who rely on mobile phones will know how difficult (as well as expensive) it is to pick up their voice messages whilst travelling. The biggest problem is relying on the various networks to pass a simple instruction to your telephone letting you know a message has been received. Even with office voice mail systems, picking up messages whilst on the road is not commonplace, particularly if in the USA. Recently, Microsoft took most of the UK staff to a corporate event in California. Unfortunately, most people simply set their voice mail to either redirect you to one of those left behind or to refuse to take a message.

Faxes are a particular problem with mobile communications because few people carry a mobile fax machine and this means that you need to know where someone is staying before you can send them information. If that information contains instructions about a meeting or urgent technical information then it may never arrive or arrive too late.


To get around the problems of the telephone system and messages, we are constantly being exhorted to take to the electronic world of email. Yet even here there are significant problems with staying in touch. I use a Hotmail account as an emergency road account, yet on a recent trip to Singapore, I had real problems getting an email connection to my normal online accounts. The solution was to take yet another email account, this time from SingTel for a limited period of three months. At least I was then able to get to my messages.

This problem does not just affect those from small companies, it affects large organisations as well. Many of the Microsoft staff who set their voice mail to say that they were away and would not be collecting messages also set their email to tell you that they were out of the office and would not be collecting emails. So how to get around this? The answer is to look at Unified Messaging, and what it potentially offers. The first thing that Unified Messaging offers is a single interface for all types of messaging. If you take the PC and the telephone, they are rarely brought together into a single device. Perhaps the best known of those that have succeeded is the Nokia Communicator but you couldn’t use it for your general office work because it lacks the power, the applications and is the wrong type of device. Yet even the Communicator has limitations caused primarily by the service providers.

A universal inbox

So we are looking for some mechanism that creates a universal inbox that combines these different forms of messaging. To be successful, it not only has to provide access to the messages but more importantly, should do so with a single interface. That interface should contain all the necessary viewer technology to decode the information. Voice messages, for example, should either be played through the PC speaker or better yet, use a headset/handset assembly so that it replaces the telephone completely. If I receive an email with attachments, the system should know how to present this information to me as well as be able to distinguish it from a fax message. Installation of any such product should install all of these components in a single pass, rather than rely on me to remember to add different components.

It sounds a tall order doesn’t it? And yet we are finally getting there. Many systems rely on the existing corporate email system and send other types of messages as an attachment. This has the advantage of a single common interface for transmit and receive but assumes that the local machine will be able to interpret the attachments. Such an approach requires good compression and capture programs and assumes that the amount of information to be transmitted is not excessive. Excessive is an important consideration because a large number of online service providers apply limits to the size of messages and how much can be stored in an inbox at any one time. Hotmail, for example, places a 2MB maximum and this would fail to hold my daily electronic messages, let alone allow me to collect any voice and fax information.

Internet standards

Much of the success of Unified Messaging lies in the acceptance of Internet Standards for the transmission of messages. This, and the growth of newer services such as Internet Telephony, has transformed the potential for communications. The basic services are supported by most email products today such as Lotus cc:Mail and Microsoft Exchange. The original SMTP service is quite dated now and many vendors have moved their services to POP3. Unfortunately, POP3 does not distinguish between different types of messages and you can find yourself sitting in a hotel room downloading several MB of files.

Newer services are always appearing, and one of these is the IMAP4 protocol which is designed to overcome many of the limitations of POP3. Unfortunately, few of the major Internet Service Providers (ISP) have moved over to, or announced dates when they plan to move to, IMAP4. Services such as IP Telephony are also close to becoming a reality as we see improvements to the International Telephony Union (ITU-T) key standard H.323 from which the audio section is being used for this service. This standard is also responsible for defining desktop video conferencing and is likely, therefore, to see us extending our perception of Unified Messaging to include video and data transfer via other ITU-T standards such as T.120.

The alternatives

An alternative solution is to take a look at either Citrix WinFrame or Microsoft Terminal Server and combine them with your office system. Over the last year the thin client market has been extremely successful with widespread adoption. The attraction is that very little is actually transmitted across the link unless you choose to do so. As a result, you can connect to your Microsoft Exchange at the office and choose what messages are important at this time, without having to transfer everything to your local machines. Using the audio contained in the Citrix and NCD clients, you can even play voice messages across the link.
If you need to transfer information to the client for later reading, then you can still do so through the online mechanism but only that which you really want or need. You can also pick up any other files from your server at the same time, saving multiple connections to collect information.

Perhaps the most important thing here, however, is that the original information is still present on your key office server and therefore you have an archive copy should anything happen to the remote computer. At present, many of the better solutions come from vendors who are focused on Unified Messaging as a vertical market, but expect big moves from the next version of Microsoft Exchange.

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