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March 1999

Beyond Unified Messaging: Voicing Control Over Remote Applications


While the rise of the Internet and the use of wireless phones have emerged at the center of communications in the '90s, they are certainly not the only means by which people communicate when on the road or in some remote location. Conventional phone lines continue to carry huge traffic volumes, and countless millions of pages of data still make their way across America and the world via fax. Additionally, there is a strong and growing market for notification services such as pagers and Short Message Service (SMS) on wireless phones.

However, as communications options have multiplied exponentially, individuals are increasingly challenged to learn how to navigate various messaging conduits. Addicted to communication, the world today is focused on the power of convergence - of providing the user with a single method to access business-critical information across diverse communications pipelines.

Voice-driven access options are emerging, for the first time, to deliver simple, global access to information - anytime, anywhere - using voice and any phone. Technologies including Automatic Speech Recognition (ASR) and Text-to-Speech (TTS) capabilities will transform the way we communicate. Additionally, these technologies will result in disillusionment with the popular "unified messaging" theory.

The industry known as unified messaging is being hyped as the way to funnel messages from diverse media - voice mail, facsimile, and e-mail - and compile them into a single format. Currently, there are two schools of thought on the most appropriate unifying communications conduit to access and manage business-critical information. Logically, it makes little sense today to leverage facsimile as a common front-end to all messages. Rather, leaders are debating whether voice or e-mail will provide the common pipe that users will tap to access information across all communications mediums. Based on this position, there are six components to the unified messaging arena:

  1. Phone access to voice mail.
  2. Phone access to e-mail.
  3. Phone access to facsimile.
  4. PC access to voice mail.
  5. PC access to e-mail.
  6. PC access to facsimile.

While the allure of unified messaging is appealing, and "on paper" it may seem logical, there are significant pragmatic limitations associated with trying to force the interface limitations of one tool on top of another. Unified messaging applications require users to make excessive use of the telephone keypad to access e-mail, or force them to equip their PCs with sophisticated, cumbersome, and expensive microphone and speaker accessories to log into voice mail.

The simple truth is that one size does not fit all. The great unified messaging challenge must be broken down into sub-challenges to be addressed effectively. If the industry is to deliver solutions that truly empower the user, then those solutions must factor in the limitations of the delivery devices. The best way to deliver value in communications convergence is to study human behavior, review the existing communication infrastructure and technology capabilities, and focus on a subset of the unified messaging scheme.

In this vein, the industry needs to build solutions that do not require a "cultural shift" to be accepted in the mainstream. Voice mail is readily accessible from any telephone, worldwide. People do not experience challenges getting their voice mail messages, and have little interest in having them converted to text so they can be read on PCs. Facsimile messages can be imported into a PC, however, fax machines are widely available, and the paper medium allows people to take their messages anywhere, mark them up by hand, and resend as required.

E-mail has become a critical tool for daily communications. To illustrate the increasing dependency on e-mail, a recent survey by MarkeTek Research of Fairfax, Va., asked mobile professionals to describe if and how "e-mail ever saved their life?" Responses included:

  • I received copies of overheads at 10:30 p.m. the night before my 9:30 a.m. presentation.
  • Schedule rearrangements.
  • Meeting almost impossible deadlines.
  • Getting me information before I got "foot-in-mouth" disease.
  • Delivering critical information needed for deadline/production materials to hotel in remote location. Got the work out, we were heroes! We could've been dead.
  • Had to ship a product to a customer, which was crucial to him. He had changed his location and the e-mail advised me, therefore providing the customer with the product and us "saving a major account."

The most significant challenge professionals face is receiving e-mail when out of the office. To date, staying in touch has meant lugging a portable computer and seeking out an open analog line that will accept a PC hookup to send and receive e-mail. As any business traveler knows, finding such an analog line to receive e-mail in an airport, the back of a taxi, or in a client's lobby is next to impossible.

While newly launched wireless modems offer some functionality, the high price is a barrier to mainstream acceptance by mobile professionals. Even if a wireless modem provides access to e-mail, coverage is spotty, especially when traveling overseas. Users must first learn a series of steps required to gain access, and then perform those time-consuming steps each time they want to download information.

Further, it is important to consider the inconvenience associated with lugging a seven-pound laptop from place to place, and people do not have their laptops with them at all times. However, there is no shortage of people who have called in to check their voice mail from home or from the airport. These individuals are frustrated not to have the same 24-hour, seven-day access to e-mail. Voice e-mail fills this void.

In many circumstances, voice e-mail will be used as a complement to traditional e-mail. A mobile professional waiting for an important e-mail message will no longer have to repeatedly go up to a hotel room, unplug the telephone in the room, dial in, and download to know if the message has arrived. Voice e-mail empowers the user to check e-mail by phone or be automatically notified when it arrives. If the message has not arrived, the user can occupy themselves more profitably.

There is significant opportunity to exploit emerging voice navigation technologies and the ubiquitous telephone - wireless and land-based - to deliver voice e-mail communications solutions. Voice navigation technology is reaching the required point of maturity - functionality, usability, and scalability. Concurrently, the Internet has become a tool businesses rely on for information; however, the level of frustration in accessing the Internet while out of the office has made the need for ubiquitous access increasingly more important. Voice-driven applications are emerging as a highly valuable path to achieve universal Internet access.

In keeping with earlier comments about not trying to force the interface limitations of one communications tool on top of another, voice e-mail will only take root as a mainstream business application if it delivers intuitive functionality. As such, solutions must be accessible by a voice-driven interface. Forcing touchtone navigation onto the user is not the solution. Additionally, touchtone navigation will present users with major challenges in trying to navigate the system while operating a motor vehicle - which may drive legislation limiting usage.

Hand in glove with the requirement for advanced voice navigation, any successful voice e-mail service must offer the functionality and intelligence to bridge the distance between the visual e-mail and purely audible and voice-driven telephone experience. One of the great features of e-mail is that all messages are displayed on the screen. This empowers the user to scan and prioritize messages. Most commonly, users prioritize according to sender. Further, there is significant ambiguity in the written word. Any convergence solution must let users hear the information that was meant for the eye.

Voice e-mail solutions must deliver a mechanism to provide for this prioritization through capabilities that manage real-time allocation of speech resources including user-specific grammar and vocabularies. This delivers an ability to derive meaning from the relative in addition to the absolute, as well as the depth and flexibility to bridge between e-mail slang and the spoken word, if they are to emerge as a viable synonym for traditional visual e-mail.

Today's leading-edge voice e-mail offers advanced capacity to access e-mail and provide meaningful response and management capabilities. The services leverage the Web to increase the relevance of the voice navigated voice e-mail experience. With one service on the market, users can visit a Web site (www.myinbox.net) to enter a personal profile, which includes setting up filters to prioritize e-mail from specified parties and creating a list of message replies. Then, when the user calls an 800 number to check e-mail, the system prioritizes messages according to the defined personal profile. It then speaks e-mail messages and allows the user to respond as if sitting at a terminal - reply, forward, save, delete, etc.

At this time, voice recognition capabilities do not support the ability to reliably compose responses on the fly. However, it is anticipated that this composition functionality will be delivered within 12 months. In the interim, users can direct the system to pull responses from the personal profile listing of defined message replies. Further, users can forward messages to the attention of a colleague for resolution - particularly useful if travelling for an extended period.

Currently, voice e-mail services cannot open image attachments and their relevance in handling large text attachments is limited. However, as stated earlier, the user can utilize the service in conjunction with a traditional laptop. Should an important message containing an attachment arrive, the user can get to a terminal and log in to download. Users can also leverage the message forward capabilities to pass the attachment to a colleague for review and processing.

Designed to be delivered as a service that people will buy from their traditional telephone or wireless carrier as they purchase voice mail today, these voice navigation solutions offer the scalability and carrier-class quality of service required to break into mainstream usage in 1999. The reality is that the telephone is the ultimate thin client. While e-mail by voice represents the state of the art today, this is only the beginning. Over the coming years, the industry will leverage telephone and voice navigation technologies to deliver a world where an individual's voice becomes the easiest and most powerful tool to access information and take action.

William D. Livingston is co-founder and chief technology officer of CrossMedia Networks Corp., a leading provider of voice portals. The company's mission is to simplify access to business-critical information for mobile professionals. Prior to CrossMedia, he was the COO of Entropic Research Laboratory, Inc., a leading international supplier of speech technology and software tools for speech research and development. Livingston can be contacted at bill.livingston@crossmedia.net.

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