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Special reports - Get the message - October 1999
As unified messaging moves out of the realms of dreams and towards reality, Philip Hunter assesses the state of the market and picks up the messages about future developments

The perfect unified messaging (UM) system will not arrive until it is possible to convert accurately and automatically both ways between speech and text. This is needed to deliver the vital missing component of most current UM systems, which is the ability to listen to your emails via a mobile phone, and then have your spoken replies converted back to text. Then the person who sent the original message can receive your reply in the form of a standard text email, avoiding the need to listen to a voice attachment which takes time and for which that person’s PC might not be equipped anyway.

The service you require is unavailable

Most existing vendors of UM products and providers of services deny that this missing ingredient is even desirable, but that is because they cannot offer it. The fact is that for many users the biggest advantage of a UM service that provides access to voice, fax and email messages from a single point is being able to deal with their mountain of emails while on the move. BT Cellnet does, in fact, offer a service for converting voice messages to textual emails, but this requires human operators to transcribe the spoken words with the assistance of a speech recognition engine. Cellnet argues that the use of the speech recognition engine reduces the cost of the transcription task sufficiently to make it viable for converting voice messages to emails. The transcription is provided as a service to operators such as Cellnet by a speech recognition system vendor called Speech Machines, which saw this as a lucrative application for its products. The company diverts the human part of the task to areas of the world, for example in the Far East, where labour is cheap. In the case of the Cellnet service, users can send messages converted into text this way either to someone else, or back to themselves. The latter provides a mobile memorandum service, enabling users to dictate messages on the move and then receive them back as emails within two hours.

However the general view is that any UM service that requires human intervention will be too cumbersome and expensive, although there is widespread agreement that the ability to access and reply to messages of all types while on the move is important. But given the limitations of current speech recognition technology, the emphasis is on being able to deal with voice messages within email systems, and to integrate with existing voice mail services. This is certainly high on the list of priorities identified by Microsoft’s president Steve Balmer when announcing the company’s vision for UM in June this year. He emphasised the importance of two key standards, one being the new Super Long Value (SLV) database format for streaming large voice data files in and out of databases. The other standard is VPIM (Voice Profile for Internet Messaging), which enables existing voice mail systems to interoperate with each other and, most importantly, with emerging UM systems.

Voice Profile for Internet Messaging

This is significant because obviously the whole world is not going to move over to UM overnight. VPIM will allow users of new UM systems to interoperate with existing voice mail systems while enjoying as high a common subset of the messaging features as possible. For example, VPIM allows voice messages to be broadcast to multiple subscribers on different voice mail systems, supports non-delivery notification and allows messages to be prioritised. This goes well beyond what has been possible using traditional analogue networking of voice mail systems via AMIS (Analog Messaging Interchange Specification). However AMIS will continue to be an important fall back for interoperating with older voice mail systems that do not support VPIM, providing just the basic send, receive and reply features.

One of the benefits of UM is that users will more readily be able to select the medium best suited to the task. Email or fax are obviously the only options for sending documents, but for short ad hoc messages, voice mail over the Internet may be preferred once there is widespread interoperability. After all, speech can convey an urgency or emphasis not possible with text. At the same time a voice message can convey information more succinctly than a live conversation, saving both time and communication costs. The latter saving can be significant because voice messages, unlike live conversations, can be sent across the Internet without loss of quality.

As a rule of thumb, sending voice over the Internet works out 20 times cheaper than the average call cost allowing that some will be long distance, some international and so on. And according to a survey by Nortel, within a typical organisation 20% of all conversations could take place more efficiently as exchanges of voice mail, translating into potential communications cost savings of 19%. Nortel itself has put this into practice within its own organisation according to the company’s messaging product manager Hugh Mahoney, who reckoned that once you acquire the habit you actually use voice messaging more than 20% of the time. "We’ve found because it’s so easy to use that you start to compose voice messages more often than make calls," he said.

Controlling message flow

Another point is that it is quicker to compose a voice mail on your PC than over the phone when you have to wait for the answering messages to end. But it still remains to be seen whether voice messaging really does take off beyond being a fall back. What is beyond doubt though is that an important function of UM will be to help control message flow and enable urgent messages to reach users wherever they are. And this function also extends to live voice conversation, which increasingly will be ranked as just another messaging option alongside voice mail, email, fax and SMS. For example, a senior manager in a meeting might want to screen out most incoming calls to his or her mobile but be contactable for urgent messages from a select group of people, such as perhaps the chief executive.

UM services that enable calls to be screened according to the CLI (calling line identifier) and routed to voice mail if they are deemed non-urgent are now becoming available. Another feature, supported by the Unified Call Management (UCM) service from Call Sciences, allows callers to be asked for their name and have this played as a voice clip to the user who can then decide whether to take the call or divert it to voice mail. During this time the caller is kept waiting, hearing a message that the system is trying to locate the called person, and then if subsequently diverted to voice mail another message to the effect that the called party is unavailable. "One of the important things is that it never reveals where the subscriber is, or that the call’s been rejected," said Call Science’s marketing director John Argus.

When accessing email over the phone, the prime requirement is to be able to filter out all the non-urgent messages that can perhaps be dealt with later. Equally important for users that want to deal with all their morning’s email during their journey to work is the ability to sift down through the incoming stack and delete all those junk items and then pluck off the rest in order of priority. This can be accomplished over mobile phones by playing the headings or source of each message, but this is rather tedious if there are large numbers of them. A better system would be to list the headings and origins in a display, but this would require a data facility and so is not possible over a standard mobile, although clearly it will become more widespread in future.

Short Message Service

At present there is the possibility of SMS (short message service) to flag urgent messages, but the common option is to apply standard filters so that only emails from specified individuals reach your phone. The use of SMS is more widely confined either to sending short general messages or flagging urgent voice messages, and can, in any case, only be applied to emails delivered to the service’s mail server. In practice many corporate emails are delivered to an in-house mail system with different addresses, which raises the issue of how to integrate these with emerging UM services. At present the UM service can access emails from your corporate mailbox, providing this is permitted by your employer, but cannot generally prioritise them. According to Allen Scott, business development director of Ovation, the most likely way forward is for UM services to start being adopted on an ad hoc basis by individuals within a company. Then eventually the service provider would deploy an integration package on the company’s mail server. That would allow seamless access to corporate email from the UM system with support for functions such as prioritisation.

In that way UM will pervade the corporate network from outside, perhaps eventually replacing internal systems with virtual private messaging services.

Unified messaging defined

Perhaps it is best to describe what a UM service should provide while pointing out that most fall well short of the ideal, and that indeed not all of the features are needed in all cases. Firstly, UM should enable you to access messages of all types, i.e. email, fax, voice mail and SMS (short message service) from a single point of control. Ideally it should not matter whether this point is a browser on your desktop PC, or a mobile phone in which case emails are converted to speech. Ideally you should be able to reply in whatever format is convenient, for example by voice over a mobile phone. Messaging is not purely a passive process relying on users taking the trouble to access messages. Therefore another major function of UM is to ensure that messages, in particular urgent ones, are delivered to users wherever they are. On this front UM needs to be integrated with ‘follow me’ services, so that users can register where they are, and/or ordain that messages are delivered to specified points according to the time of day perhaps. Related to this is the final function; the ability to control the flow of messages, which is particularly important when accessing emails from a mobile phone.

Given the huge load of emails now received by many users, it is important to be able to filter email intrays so that only urgent ones are listened to over the phone, while the rest may be dealt with later via a PC.

The main players

Just like two of its main ingredients, email and voice mail, UM can be either a public service or an in-house corporate system, with the potential to integrate the two. In either case there has to be a platform to host the system on, and, surprise, surprise, Microsoft Exchange has emerged as the principle contender, with IBM’s Lotus Notes providing some competition. Then there has to be dedicated UM software on top, and all the main products run on Exchange, and often on Notes too. Examples include Nortel’s Call Pilot, Lucent’s Unified Messenger, and Active Voice’s Unity, which all run on Exchange.

Meanwhile Microsoft itself will incorporate ever more UM functions directly into future versions of Exchange, so as with some other applications like word processing and email itself, dedicated suppliers might find themselves squeezed out. Such dedicated suppliers may be major providers of communications systems such as Nortel, or they may have made the natural progression from pure email or voice mail. Lucent’s Unified Messenger in fact comes into this latter category. The product was developed by Octel, which grew up as a provider of voice messaging systems before being acquired by Lucent.

On the service side there are three types of contender. Firstly there are traditional carriers or providers of mobile services, for which UM, rather like audio and video conferencing, represents a vital source of added value revenue in the face of sharply declining call unit prices. Secondly there are ISPs (Internet Service Providers), which showed scant interest in UM until a few months ago, but have now been dragged kicking and screaming into the market for value added services by the dramatic change in the Internet pricing model brought by the likes of FreeServe. All of a sudden, Internet access is something that people expect free so ISPs, even more than traditional telcos, need new ways of attracting revenue.

However, the pricing model for UM services is itself changing rapidly, driven particularly by the third category of UM service provider, the new kids on the block. For example Ovation Communications, one of the new breed of dedicated UM service providers, is launching a service with no subscription and that provides free access to messages over the Internet.

However to retrieve messages by phone, users have to call a premium rate number, and so that is how the company will generate its revenue. This emphasises the fact that the killer application is the retrieval of messages, including email and voice mail, from phones, particularly mobiles. Indeed it is the fact that UM is perfectly placed to exploit the twin booms of the Internet and mobile telephony that led Ovum to predict that the market for UM as a whole would reach a mouth watering $35 billion by 2005.

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