Windows NT Telephony and Unified Messaging: A Harmonic Convergence?

Mobile telecommunications vendor Optimus Telecomunicacoes SA is hard at work bringing new-age communications services to the locals of Lisbon, Portugal. Formed as a partnership in July 1997 between Sonae, ETG, Maxitel, IPE, and France Telecom, Optimus (www.optimus.pt) is now the fastest growing mobile operator in Portugal.

But sustaining that growth was difficult. With more than 650 employees over five sites, Optimus needed to integrate a voice mail and messaging system into its existing Windows NT network to improve communication capabilities. Rui Paiva, the company's MIS manager, says, "As each site had its own [Microsoft] Exchange server forming part of a single network, it was essential that any messaging solution considered should be capable of fully integrating with this environment."

After a brief search, Optimus chose a combined unified messaging solution developed by Brooktrout Technology (www.brooktrout.com) and Intersis SA (www.us.voixx.com) to handle its communications integration campaign.

Shortly after the pact was sealed, staff members at each Optimus location were given a telephone and a mailbox within Exchange, which is normally accessed from a desktop PC through an Exchange Client, such as Outlook 97.

With the new package, users can see all incoming voice, e-mail, and fax messages from a single screen, with all accessible by clicking on the desired message. The messages are played back through the user's designated telephone extension. If staff members are working at another location, they can access mailboxes from any telephone -- whether this is another office extension, or mobile phone. If staffers are unavailable, incoming calls can be routed to voicemail.

Using Intersis' VoiXX voice, fax, and e-mail single-platform integration system, Optimus became the latest in a line of companies to dip its toes further into the increasingly crowded waters of unified messaging.

Nuts and Bolts

In a nutshell, unified messaging is the integration of several different communications media, such that users can retrieve and send voice, fax, and e-mail messages from a single interface -- whether it be a wireline phone, wireless phone, PC, or Internet-enabled PC.

Specifically, unified messaging is about revolutionizing how people use their telecommunications tools. If the 1990s were all about introducing end users to new concepts like e-mail and cell phones, then the 2000s will primarily be about enabling users to deploy all of their new telecommunications toys in one place. "We like the idea of interoperability; of easy learning curves, of being able to add more applications if you want to," says Cecilia Kennally, a spokeswoman for Rockwell International Corp. (www.rockwell.com). Rockwell is currently using a helpdesk telephony tool from Dialogic Corp. (www.dialogic.com) that helps company service representatives route customer contacts from multiple sources. "Plus, there's less cost involved with unified messaging tools. We've had little or no issues with the technology and don't expect to," Kennally says.

Long a promise that's been tantalizingly out of reach for most end users, unified messaging has become the hottest battleground of the Windows NT telephony world. Most observers say it's about time.

"While a handful of vendors started peddling unified messaging as far back as 1996, it's only been in the last year that the market for unified messaging has started heating up," says Christine Holley, marketing specialist at communications server vendor Interactive Intelligence Inc. (www.interactiveintelligence.com). Holley is one of many industry observers who scratch their heads over the slow response and missed opportunities of the unified messaging revolution. "It's been more of a whimper than a bang," she adds. "Some attribute the problem to a lack of perceived value, others to distribution challenges, and still others to noncompetitive price points. While these issues have certainly played a role in unified messaging's lack of acceptance in the marketplace, the root of the problem lies in the very foundation on which traditional unified messaging solutions have been built. In effect, unified messaging is a symptom of a much bigger problem: the lack of unified communications."

The numbers affirm Holley's assessment. The unified messaging industry has progressed more conservatively than the enthusiastic predictions made on its behalf. Some of the impediments to growth are technical, such as a lack of open standards and a unifying architecture to base systems upon. Other hurdles are economic. Companies engaged in supplying voice mail systems, for example, are moving to unified messaging at a pace that does not disrupt existing customers and users. Analysts do predict massive sustained growth in the market in the coming years, however.

Strategy Analytics Inc. (www.strategyanalytics.com) predicts 90 million unified messaging users by 2003. The Pelorus Group Inc. (www.pelorusgroup.com) anticipates unified messaging revenues in the industry could rise from $26.8 million worldwide in 1997 to $2.3 billion in 2002. IDC (www.idc.com) projects unified messaging revenue to hit $3 billion by 2003.

Shifting into Second Gear

As the unified messaging market continues to crystallize, eager users are starting to come around and sign on with vendors. Consider Techmar Communications Inc. (www.techmar.com), which recently replaced its proprietary communications system with a Windows NT-based solution by Interactive Intelligence. The solution, called Enterprise Interaction Center (EIC), is an all-in-one communications server that replaces proprietary devices such as PBXs, IVRs, ACDs, voice mail systems, Web gateways, and CTI middleware systems.

Techmar was able to equip 65 employees with the NT communications system within one week. A single Windows NT server running EIC replaced a Lucent G3 PBX, an Aspect ACD, and Davox predictive dialer. It provided complete unified messaging integrated with Microsoft Exchange Server. Unified messaging features include Caller ID/ANI, OCR, and global access to a universal inbox.

Using EIC's auto attendant voice mail prompts, employees can press a key to add a voice annotation when forwarding a message. Also, when retrieving voice mail and e-mail messages by phone, they can select a "reply" option. In the case of voice mail, employees can either place a call to the person who sent them the message, or record a voice response, which is sent to that person. With e-mail, the reply function allows employees to record a voice message, which is sent as a reply to the sender.

Intersis and Interactive Intelligence are hardly alone. With Y2K woes a distant memory and a wide-open market opportunity in front of them, some of the biggest traditional PBX and computer vendors are entering the Windows NT telephony arena, with unified messaging playing a role in the way NT telephony moves into the enterprise. More than 50 companies, including industry leaders Lucent Technologies Inc. (www.lucent.com), Nortel Networks Corp. (www.nortel.com) and Active Voice Corp. (www.activevoice.com), are actively developing and delivering unified messaging solutions on the Microsoft platform alone.

These companies are firm believers that a well-designed NT telephony system can make a company more flexible and more productive. Got a vice president who needs to work at home? Proponents say a unified messaging solution can either forward the call or send the caller to voice mail, whichever the recipient desires. You say there's a field representative looking to close a deal out in Toledo? Subscribers of digital wireless phones can take advantage of unified messaging to access messages. Through the handset display they can access their mailbox and see a listing of voice, fax, and e-mail messages. They can then use the softkeys of the handset to select the message they want. Don't worry, your IT manager is covered as well. In the back office a unified messaging system can help ease management's burden of maintaining a separate network for voice and data.

"I think there's a lot to be said about the 'one-cord' revolution, for lack of a better term," says Katherine Owens, manager of business development systems at Natural Microsystems Corp. (www.nmss.com), a telephony tools provider. "In the past, you had phone systems that were managed by one group, e-mail managed by another group, and one hand didn't know what the other was doing. You also had different hardware, different software, and different servers. The reason we've been successful in the marketplace is because we've adhered to the one-cord philosophy by developing one board in one slot that can handle voice, messages, fax management, and IT telephony. Using one board and never having to change it or add another one is a strong story to tell our customers."

According to a 1999 study by Radicati Group Inc. (www.radicati.com), an independent market research firm, employees using unified messaging solutions are on average one half-hour more productive each day.

Overcoming Barriers

Shock-inducing sticker prices for unified messaging tools are becoming a thing of the past. Prices are coming down industrywide and a perception among users that unified messaging is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

"In the NT world, if you are implementing [unified messaging] you need to watch the budget," says David Mpojeannis, director of sales and marketing at UniExchange Corp. (www.uniexchange.com), which offers unified messaging tools at a cost of $3,500 for 25 user licenses. "But it's all relative. If you outsource everything, including an operating system, servers, and training, it can easily cost you more than $20,000 annually. Why do that when a service provider will give you the same thing for $20 a month?"

Others agree with that assessment. "The issue of price point has also been raised as yet another barrier to mainstream acceptance of unified messaging," Holley says. "That's because the voice messaging vendors, selling unified messaging as an adjunct product, have priced it per seat from between $100 and $250. This price point is on par with more popular applications like CTI desktop software, making unified messaging a hard sell to IT management." Holley advocates a solution offered by the communication server community -- a communications platform with built-in CTI functionality, such as multimedia queuing, screen pops, and more. "In fact, the more applications run on a communications server, the more valuable it becomes," she adds.

The case against unified messaging, adds Mpojeannis, was that corporate bean counters could point to a fully functioning sales department or a human resources department and say they don't need it. Those days, he says, are over. "We've seen how the Internet has driven down prices across the high-tech industry, and the telephony world is no different. If you wanted unified messaging in years past, it could cost up to $500 per head. Who could justify that?"

Taking a philosophical approach, Mpojeannis says mankind has created another technology monster that it can't control. Hence the need for tools that try to control it. "You've got e-mail, faxes, phone calls -- there's a lot of messages coming our way. With e-mail -- the latest manifestation -- we have another example of how we've created a technology that is supposed to serve us but instead we wind up serving it." Add to stuffed e-mail boxes, cell phones that display text, laptops, palm pilots, and fax machines, and the case for organizing all of those tools grows compelling.

"Before, the business case was always phone-based," says Henry Dewing, senior enterprise marketing manager at Dialogic. "But because of the different technological opportunities out there now, like e-mail and mobile computing, organizational mindsets are changing. The benefits of going to one cord are huge -- and companies are just beginning to realize that."

Big Opportunities

Down the road, the market for unified messaging systems will be sizable and global. According to a Microsoft white paper, "Just as wireless, e-mail, and the World Wide Web have spread wider, deeper, and faster than generally predicted, unified messaging will surpass expectations."

Microsoft says, there are three reasons for such optimism. First, the telephone is ubiquitous and comfortably familiar in all corners of the world. "The convergence of voice and data systems will extend availability of data-based services to the entire, massive world telephone market," states the company. "The instant popularity of e-mail and the Web already have shown the market's appetite for networked data services."

Second, the advance of speech recognition and natural language technologies will make data networks more inviting and accessible to the large number of people using telephones but not personal computers. Just as the standard graphical user interface provided by Windows increased computer use by making it easier, the reduction of dependence on keyboards and set commands will extend use of data base services, including messaging, to a larger market.

Third, unified messaging offers convenient access to information for the knowledge worker, which Microsoft describes as critical for productivity in the business world.

"Let's face it, unified messaging has a lot going for it," adds Jay Hutton, chief executive officer at Voice Mobility Inc. (www.voicemobility.com), an NT voice software developer. "It's inexpensive, easy to configure, and easy to install. How do we know? Because our customers didn't exist 10 years ago. But they sure do now."