|Asia-Pacific III 2001
|Next-Generation Unified Messaging Almost Ready for Prime Time
Messages, messages, messages: the busier we are the more we get, hurtling towards us via every conceivable medium. How we long to gain control when return from a trip away. Unified messaging offers the potential to present all your messages together so that you can deal with them more effectively and responsively. Here Nick Hutton describes some of the exciting opportunities that are arriving and looks to a future where any message can be accessed from any device.
Today, it is hardly worth taking a few days off, since it is so painful and time-consuming to wade through the deluge of phone, fax and email messages that pile up during the break. In addition, an improperly installed email ‘rule’ that automatically replies, “Hi, I’m away…” to an incoming message can slow down or even bring down a corporate email server. In fact, so many systems of communication have sprung up during the last 10 years that they are starting to become counterproductive. With email, fax, phone, pagers and more, users spend more time sifting through messages than actually communicating. Counting wireless services and online systems, the average professional may have at his/her disposal half a dozen different messaging technologies. They include email, voice mail, cellular telephony, paging, fax and even snail mail. It is a problem that people can, and in some cases must, spend hours answering these messages. A single technology that provides an easier, faster way to manage various message forms has been on the horizon for some time-unified messaging. The definition of unified messaging is deceptively simple: a technology that allows access to any electronic message form at any time from any device. Snail mail, however, is beyond the help of unified messaging. The good news is that unified messaging is now drawing closer. Singapore Telecom introduced its OneMail unified messaging service to the consumer market last year. Even more aggressive deployment has occurred in Korea. Multiple unified messaging service providers entered the market within the last year, many targeting mobile users. While unified messaging doesn’t lessen the volume of messages, it has the potential to save time by putting all of the messages of varying forms into one place. Ideally, unified messaging integrates email, voice mail, pages and faxes into a single inbox from which messages can be retrieved using any type of device, ranging from personal digital assistants to a standard telephone. Unified messaging also offers the ability to route calls and messages to the appropriate place depending on the subscriber’s location and preferences. Through unified messaging systems, a single telephone call can provide access to voice mail, email (electronically read by a text-to-speech conversion software and downloaded to the inbox), faxes, or pages. Or, users sitting at a computer can access voice mails and faxes from the same inbox or browser that houses their email and other forms of online communication. The idea is to provide quick, easy access to what had been multiple types of messages. Rather than spend time jumping between a voice mailbox of the regular or cell phone, email inbox on the laptop, etc. users can just give out a single email address and telephone number for all their data and voice communications. As a side benefit, system administrators may not have to worry about maintaining the office fax machines, email system, voice mail system and everything else, because there may be fewer systems to maintain as unified messaging takes on a bigger role. Strong Demand There are several advantages to unified messaging that have subscribers smiling and potential subscribers lining up. First, people on the go can access faxes and email via regular or cellular telephone, allowing them to stay in touch between meetings or flights. Second, users don’t have to reply to a message in the same form the message was sent. For instance, a voice-mail reply can be sent in response to an email or fax. This allows tech-savvy or tech-wary people to use their preferred messaging form. For example, people who aren’t comfortable using online services can receive emails, listen to the messages as audio files, and reply to them as voice mails or faxes. Best of all, unified messaging systems have the potential to increase responsiveness. Users can sift through messages more efficiently and remain connected to their emails, fax machines, and voice mailboxes without carrying a belt full of different communication devices. Instead, a single handheld PDA or cell phone may suffice. For these reasons, demand for unified messaging services is predicted to grow substantially over the next two to three years. An October 2000 study by Phillips-InfoTech, a consultancy located in Parsippany, New Jersey, indicates that 60 per cent of organisations are strongly interested in purchasing unified messaging systems by 2003. Forty per cent said they are somewhat likely to purchase unified messaging systems by 2001. The study surveyed more than 80 executives of telecommunications, IT, data communications and operational areas responsible for messaging device purchases. Research firm Ovum Ltd. in London estimates that the number of active unified messaging users in the United States will grow from 3.5 million in 2000 to nearly 42 million in 2005. As demand escalates, telecommunications service providers will need to deliver sophisticated messaging services to remain competitive. Optimally, providers will need to give consumers and businesspeople the convenience of communicating using their preferred method, and managing their incoming messages from any device. Unified messaging holds significant promise in terms of helping people with the deluge of messages arriving from various communication systems. Because it is a much-needed service that simplifies people’s lives, unified messaging also is an ideal way for telecommunications service providers to increase revenue and reduce customer churn. Today, unified messaging is still a relatively new technology that is struggling to be defined, both for potential customers and product manufacturers. There are several forms of unified messaging currently on the market. Direct inward dial (DID), which combines fax and voice mail, is one alternative to helping subscribers manage their messages, but it is limited because it only handles two modes of communication. Over the next few years, unified messaging options will get much better and much more comprehensive, delivering on the promise of allowing users to access any electronic message form at any time from any device. So far, service providers have found it difficult to deploy unified messaging systems that do it all, because many offerings aren’t quite ready for prime time. A typical shortcoming of many unified messaging systems currently being used by service providers is the inability to scale up to meet customer demand quickly. There is also the challenge of delivering unified messaging over the typical mix of legacy circuit-switched, broadband and packet-switched (IP) networks. Circuit-switched networks have been designed to handle voice traffic, and deliver feature-rich voice mail services to subscribers. However, the transition by service providers from circuit-switched networks to IP networks is accelerating. IP networks, on the other hand, have so far been used primarily to handle data traffic. The most common form of traffic now is email. The lack of interoperability to date between voice (circuit-switched) and data (IP) networks has kept unified messaging services from quick maturation. It also has limited the value of existing unified messaging systems, such as DID. Separate Voice and Data Camps The voice/data schism has resulted in two approaches for service providers to deliver unified messaging services. One is voice mail-centric. The other is email-centric. Unfortunately for subscribers and service providers, both have drawbacks. Using an email or data-centric approach, faxes, emails and voice messages all come into one web-based inbox in a computer or PDA. Users can typically listen to their voice messages using a player like QuickTime or WAV, view faxes and read email messages on screen. They also can retrieve voice and email messages by phone using text-to-speech technology. The downside to a data-centric approach is that much of the high-end functionality subscribers have become accustomed to with voice messaging must often be sacrificed. For example, due to the chasm between data and voice, few email-centric unified messaging offerings support sophisticated voice mail features, such as message notification and automatic telephone number identification. Subscribers who appreciate rich voice mail functionality may not want to sacrifice cutting-edge features offered by most of today’s voice mail systems. Data-centric approaches also have been held back because of the difficulties associated with sending voice calls over the Internet, or voice over IP. Challenges have included a lack of industry standards and the fact that most service provider networks lack the needed bandwidth for voice over IP. The voice-oriented approach to unified messaging also has its shortcomings. The conversion of existing voice messaging technologies to IP-based systems is problematic because most voice mail systems were not designed to accommodate Internet messages. As a result, an email sent from someone who is not a voice mail subscriber may not make its way into the recipient’s message inbox. Some voice-oriented unified messaging systems only allow users to hear messages, not reply to them, while others may not be accessible through a web browser. Traditional voice messaging systems also were never designed to handle the needs of a rapidly expanding base of mobile subscribers, who want to retrieve messages using a wireless device. Many voice-oriented unified messaging products also have no capability to deal with new media, such as Internet voice and images. A Flexible Approach For service providers seeking to deliver unified messaging services or upgrade existing offerings, there is a way to overcome many of the current obstacles. A new type of network architecture is available that helps service providers bridge legacy voice messaging systems, email and IP telephony systems, and wireless data access while combining many media types into an advanced unified networking environment. The architecture has three tiers. The first provides universal connectivity through a variety of network access options. Using media gateways, the first tier integrates multiple types of traffic -voice, data and even video-and accommodates disparate access networks. The second tier bridges different signalling and control protocols, enabling traffic to seamlessly traverse disparate networks, including traditional voice (circuit-switched) and wireless data networks. Lastly, the third tier provides an open service-creation environment to easily integrate with existing provisioning and billing systems. This allows service providers to accelerate time-to-market for unified messaging services, because they can easily and automatically provision and bill for the new services. This three-tiered architecture is ideal for next-generation providers, including Competitive Local Exchange Carriers, Internet Service Providers and Building Local Exchange Carriers, looking for optimal flexibility in delivering unified messaging and other cutting-edge services. For emerging carriers who are not already saddled with legacy systems, this architecture is an ideal way to create a competitive advantage with a state-of-the-art network. Established service providers benefit from this approach as well because they can deliver cutting-edge unified messaging services while leveraging their existing investment in legacy voice and email systems. Using this architecture, new services can even be added to existing voice messaging systems without altering the system’s user interface, creating opportunities for up-selling enhanced services while reducing customer training time and frustration. The three-tiered architecture also eases the service provider’s migration from circuit-switched networks to multi-service packet-based networks, providing greater flexibility to differentiate services and open new revenue streams. Conclusion Today, unified messaging systems still fall short of the ideal: allowing subscribers access to any message at any time from any device. They also have not yet become a major revenue generator for service providers, but all that is poised to change. With growing demand for unified messaging services, carriers will need to work quickly to bridge the gap between their voice and data networks to give users the convenient message management they crave. Those providers who don’t find a way to bridge the gap between various messaging systems may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage. By moving to an architecture that combines any media type and spans the full service portfolio, from wireless data access to IP telephony, service providers will at last be able to bring the full benefits of unified messaging to their customers. Moving to this new type of network architecture will be a worth-while undertaking, because customers who become more productive and responsive by using unified messaging will be less likely to seek a better deal somewhere else.