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February 2000


Robert Vahid Hashemian The Two Unified Messaging Models


When the Berlin Wall fell back in 1989 and East and West Germany were once again unified (known as deutsche Einheit by the Germans) after a 45-year separation, all hopes were for an efficient and speedy reunification. In essence, West Germany was given the arduous task of bringing its other half 45 years into the future in a short amount of time. After 11 years of hard work and sacrifice much has been accomplished, but the unified Germany still has a long way to go before the East/West distinction is completely eradicated.

But one thing is for certain, the unified Germany as a whole is now moving towards West Germany’s model and leaving the East German model behind. I bring up the subject of the German reunification because it reminds me of the same trials and tribulations that the communications and messaging industry is currently experiencing. I concede that the level of human urgency and its repercussions is not quite as significant as the German reunification. Nevertheless, for us in this industry its importance is anything but trivial, and in the end it could have a considerable effect on the way we communicate.

Back in the old days, when life was much simpler and there was only regular mail and telephone for communication, there was no need for advanced messaging systems. Today we still have the regular mail and the appropriately named Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS), but in addition there are voice mail, e-mail, fax, pager, cell phone, and other proprietary messages to deal with. Companies have always had the desire to outfit themselves with products that will make them more efficient, more flexible, and more cost effective when it comes to communications and messaging. The PBX is a good example of this. It basically allowed companies to set up their own mini-telephone companies within their offices. Why? Ultimately to help the bottom line, of course. A PBX lets a company declare semi-independence from the phone company. Personnel extension number changes are handled a lot quicker, call logs can be generated onsite, and all calls can be controlled and routed as desired. PBXs also allow usage of digital T1 lines to share voice channels among many people through direct inward dialing (DID), saving the company money. And through DNIS (Dialed Number Identification Service) the inbound calls can be routed to the appropriate locations depending on the number dialed. Later on when we finally got tired of having individual answering machines, the voice-mail system was tacked onto the PBX to make it a complete voice messaging system. At least for the office environment.

But not all is rosy with the PBX. They can be expensive, they require administration and maintenance, and sometimes they require expensive compatible telephone sets. So what are the small companies to do who want the benefits of the PBX but not its drawbacks? Ironically, they can go right back to their telephone company and sign up for a Centrex service. We used to have Centrex service in our office a few years ago. It wasn’t like a fully functioning PBX, but it wasn’t bad either. If you think about it, the telephone company offering the Centrex service is perhaps not unlike today’s application service provider (ASP). For a basic fee, a company is able to rent a PBX and voice mail services from the telephone company. Enhanced services are also provided with additional fees.

Unified messaging products have been creeping into our lives for some time now. As the types and volumes of messages have increased, unified messaging companies have cropped up all over the map to bring these disparate messages under one roof and make them more accessible to the recipients. Many of these companies started with simple voice-mail products that were add-ons to the PBX. Now almost all of them are expected to provide us with unified messaging and make the messages accessible to us any time, anywhere.

So does this mean that companies are dumping their voice mail systems and switching to unified messaging in droves? The answer really depends on who you talk to, but I am willing to say that the unified messaging market has not been able to fully live up to its potential. Companies have already made significant investments in their voice-mail systems and may not want to jump on a new paradigm so quickly. But another important reason is the high prices that such systems carry. Sure they are technological marvels, and sure they can make us more efficient, but many smaller companies may find it difficult to shell out up to $2,000 per user for these systems. So where can they turn to? Enter the Internet and the ASP. The combination of these two technologies is starting to give hope to the small business in need of unified messaging. Just like the Centrex service, which basically translates to a rent-a-PBX allowing a more affordable way for a company to enjoy the benefits of a PBX, the ASPs may be doing the same for unified messaging, only cheaper.

You don’t have to look far to see examples of the online unified messaging companies that have sprung up in the past few years on the Web. I actually wrote about one of them, jfax.com, in my October 1999 column. Some other companies offering similar unified messaging services on the Web are Concord Technologies, eFax.com, and MessageClick — among the 25 or so companies who have crowded this space. All of these companies offer fax, voice mail, and e-mail messages in one package for very little cost; some for free. They also offer enhanced services such as outbound faxing and e-mail retrieval through telephone with nominal fees. Just imagine, ubiquitous unified messaging for free.

Now before you trash your company’s plans to deploy a unified messaging system and sign everyone up for one of these online incarnations, there are some drawbacks to these services which are worthy of consideration. Privacy is one issue. If you have your own unified messaging system in-house, that’s also where the messages are stored. With an online unified messaging company, messages not only cross the Internet (which could be an issue for the paranoid), but they are stored on the online company’s systems. Of course, many of these companies are contractually bound not to divulge any information, but no one can be 100-percent certain and mistakes are inevitable. Consistent accessibility and reliability are yet other issues to consider. Can these vendors provide 24x7 access to the messages? Do they have fully fault tolerant systems? What about load balancing and scalability? Do they provide timely support? How about billing accuracy? With your unified messaging system in-house, you rarely have to worry about these issues. And then there are some hidden issues that no one can predict until you have used the system for a while. For instance, misdialed fax numbers. Since many online unified messaging companies buy the fax numbers in consecutive number blocks and dole them out to their customers one number at a time, the entire block of numbers become valid fax numbers. Now someone faxing you an important or sensitive document could easily make a mistake and fax the document to your virtual neighbor, whose fax number is off by just one from yours. This has happened to me twice when I received faxes destined for another subscriber. Thankfully the faxes didn’t seem sensitive. This kind of error rarely happens with onsite faxes, as there is a good random distribution of fax numbers, preventing mis-dialed numbers from connecting to another person’s fax machine. But for all their initial drawbacks and shortcomings, online unified messaging vendors are paving the way for the time when many of us will rely on them just like we have with the Centrex service.

The trials and tribulations of the messaging industry that I alluded to in the beginning of this column are in fact a reference to the distinctions between the online and onsite systems. Many onsite systems are now equipped with options to make messages available over the Internet, but this isn’t exactly the same as having a third party managing the messages. The unified messaging market is expected to reach $2.5 billion by 2002. The question is, which model will emerge as the winner? Renting or owning? Or is the question irrelevant? You tell me. Or in case you are German: Sie sagen mir.

Robert Vahid Hashemian provides us with a healthy dose of reality each month in his Reality Check column. Robert currently holds the position of Director for TMCnet.com — your online resource for CTI, Internet telephony, and call center solutions. He can be reached at rhashemian@tmcnet.com.

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