Beyond Unified Messaging: Voicing Control Over Remote
BY WILLIAM D. LIVINGSTON
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
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
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.
TO TALK OR TO TYPE?
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:
- Phone access to voice mail.
- Phone access to e-mail.
- Phone access to facsimile.
- PC access to voice mail.
- PC access to e-mail.
- 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
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.
THE E-MAIL CHALLENGE
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
- 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.
VOICE AS THE NAVIGATOR
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.