Move over e-mail

Aiming to make voice mail as flexible as e-mail, a San Rafael, Calif.-based developer of Internet voice and fax communication software has launched a stand-alone PC-server based voice profile for Internet mail (VPIM) program.

Eletel Inc. develops suites of proprietary core software products for Internet telephony and Web site-based Voice over IP products based on the H-323 protocol. The CallexWeb and VPIM can create and send voice messages from a telephone, cell phone, browser or e-mail program to any telephone, cell phone, VPIM-compliant voice mail box, e-mail address or portable Internet device via the Internet. Callex also supports fax messaging. The VPIM technology itself is designed to allow voice mail systems to exchange messages over IP.

“Most voice calls end up in a voice mail box nowadays,” said Garry Bahsler, chief financial officer for Eletel. “With CallexWeb, users will able to pick up those messages via the Internet from anywhere in the world. We’re going to duplicate the current e-mail infrastructure but for voice mail.”

When sending a voice, pager or fax message, a user dials the Callex system’s local number, declares a destination number and then records the message or facsimile transmission. The Callex system delivers a digital recording of the message or fax to any e-mail address or to anywhere in the world where the recipient is VPIM compliant. This process typically takes one to two minutes regardless of the message’s geographical destination, according to Eletel.

“We’ve taken voice mail initialization and transported it over the Internet while allowing the recipient the opportunity to reply to it,” said George Krucik, CEO of Eletel. “That recipient can reply to the message via e-mail or telephone. We’re not offering unified messaging, we’re offering integrated messaging that sits on top of your existing system.”

The time is now

Bern Elliot, a senior analyst with the Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn., said Eletel’s timing is good since VPIM technology is beginning to hit its stride in North America.

“It’s a very successful standard that took about three years to mature,” Elliot said. “End-user adoption is increasing. It’s a good year for VPIM as the product is emerging on the market and equipment vendors like Lucent Technologies and Microsoft are supporting it.”

Elliot said the real importance of VPIM is that it is breaking down the barriers between e-mail and voice mail. This was the goal of unified messaging, but it has proved too complex to implement and it’s dependent on the use of APIs. There is currently no single, declared API through which to synchronize voice mail and e-mail.

VPIM on the other hand promises to do for voice mail what standards such as SMTP and POP have done for e-mail: enable dozens of disparate software systems to exchange messages with each other over the Internet.

Currently, voice mail systems used by businesses and phone companies are proprietary and therefore incompatible; users can only perform functions such as message forwarding and broadcasting within their own systems.

“With voice mail, it’s not possible to manipulate it,” Elliot added. “Unified messaging companies like Microsoft have included [VPIM] on their platinum releases this summer. Bell Canada is looking for other service vendors to test VPIM with; all major telecommunications companies are supporting [VPIM].”

Users only need a standard phone line, a dedicated connection to the Internet with static IP address environment and FTP capabilities, and a bandwidth of 28.8Kbs or faster to take advantage of Callex.

“A lot of people don’t type very well, plus our language is rich in intonation so there’s a lot to be said for voice mail in lieu of e-mail,” Krucik said. “We’ve figured out how to make a voice message very small. We can send a one-minute message (over the Internet) under 60K, that’s a lot less than the graphics you’d see on a Web site you’ve visited.”

However, Jordan Worth, an industry analyst with IDC Canada in Toronto, gave the Eletel Callex system two thumbs down.

“It appears to be pretty clumsy at this stage,” he said. “It’s integrated messaging trying to confuse you by incorporating other wrinkles that no one will use anytime soon. You could run it on any system but the quality (of the program) would depend on your PC.”