5 min read

Get The Message Out

Maturing standards have vendors and users rallying behind unified messaging. Perks include improved connectivity and lower costs.
Time Saver
Because voice mail sent to the message store consists of an attachment to a message file, users can open the attachment to play the message from the default media player on their PCs. They also can listen to voice mail, E-mail, and fax message headers from the telephone interface. And with Interactive Intelligence's Communité, users can even listen to calendar entries while commuting, thus saving time.

The fax server may be an integrated service or module on the unified-messaging platform, or current software can support third-party fax servers like Captaris Inc.'s RightFax or Omtool Ltd.'s Genifax. As long as your server can deliver fax messages to the E-mail store, you should be OK with any unified-messaging platform. Users will be able to read faxes in E-mail and listen by phone to the header messages as the header string displays across the top of the fax page. This info will at least include the sender's number. It also may include sender name, recipient name and number, and information on the fax itself.

TPINF_chart2.gifUnified-messaging platforms also include text-to-speech engines to translate E-mails and headers to voice-mail and fax messages. In most cases, third-party software from Microsoft or ScanSoft Inc. will be included. Improvements in speech recognition and text-to-speech engines have benefited unified messaging. They make it more efficient--speech translates to text at two to three times the speeds previously possible. What you still won't find are speech-to-text engines. When speech to text matures, unified messaging will be even more efficient--most users can read an E-mail message much faster than they can listen to it play back.

Custom Options
Customization is another welcome addition. People are getting used to setting up their cell phones with special ring tones, and they're bringing those habits to work. Unified-messaging platforms let users prioritize how voice, E-mail, and fax messages are read over the phone, or set online presence availability as "available" or "at a meeting."

Unified communications is a step in the right direction for unified messaging, taking it beyond integrating with an IP PBX to obtain and replay voice messages. When a call comes into the unified-messaging platform, it may route the call back to the IP PBX, if the recipient has configured his or her setup to call another phone, before the caller is shuttled into voice mail. This is called a Session Initiation Protocol referral; its success depends on the standard being in place right down to the IP phone, and this brings into play interoperability issues between IP PBXs and phones.

Many vendors, including Avaya Inc. and Mitel Networks Corp., have added SIP support to their PBXs and unified-messaging platforms. Session Initiation Protocol-based servers scale easily and can provide services such as IM, FMFM, and even Web conferencing.

PBXs based on the protocol have wide appeal for both small and large companies. For small ones, they're an ideal upgrade from a key system (a premises-based phone system where the telco handles PBX functions). They're affordable, provide some continuity in features, and set the stage to integrate productivity apps. Vonexus Inc.'s Enterprise Interaction Center and Zultys Technologies MX250, for example, provide Windows-certified IP PBXs for small and large companies. Siemens' HiPath 8000 system scales to more than 100,000 users from a single location. This will help consolidate telephony build-outs in multiple locations and bring them to a central data center to reduce operating costs. But pay attention to the hardware compatibility lists vendors provide: If you don't use voice over IP, you'll need an analog telephony board.

Other Focuses
When it comes to signaling between IP PBXs and phones, the market is full of incompatible proprietary codecs: Cisco Systems is focused on Skinny, 3Com has H3, and Mitel squares off with MiNet. Session Initiation Protocol has caught on with developers at Avaya, Interactive Intelligence, Siemens, Zultys, and others.

But there are drawbacks. The protocol is a standard peer-to-peer one, where the intelligence resides in the end point. That intelligence isn't as sophisticated as we'd like in terms of passing the business-class features driven by IP PBXs down to proprietary and supported third-party phones. One example is the lack of a shared-line appearance indicating to one phone that another is in use.

Session Initiation Protocol-based unified-messaging products are making it more affordable to handle multiple message types. If you must replace a PBX this year, investigate them for an upgrade. Staying with one vendor will obviate testing for interoperability. And in the future, you'll have the option to buy SIP/IP phones or gateways from third parties as the standard matures.

The protocol is a work in progress. But it's good work and holds the promise of a standards-based IP telephony infrastructure, especially with the forthcoming SIP B, a working agreement by multiple vendors such as Polycom Inc. and Siemens to implement advanced feature sets on phones in a similar way. Once features are standardized, companies will be able to assemble best-of-breed systems at ever-lower costs.

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