Unified messaging offers big benefits to mobile workers

Unified messaging (UM) products have been available for more than a decade, but adoption has been slow, until recently.

Today, as more employees spend more time working out of the office, either on the road or from home, there is a renewed interest in UM.

This surge in the mobile workforce – along with aging legacy voicemail systems, and a growing interest in IP telephony – are key factors driving companies to seriously consider UM.

Unified messaging products are designed to streamline the way end users manage their phone, fax and e-mail messages. With UM, users can open, sort and archive voicemail messages from their e-mail interface, for example, or listen to an e-mail message from a telephone.

Companies are looking for tools to make the mobile population more productive, says Brad Herrington, product marketing manager at Unified Communications, a provider of telecom and converged products. “There are a lot of things people can do with a BlackBerry or Pocket PC. They can get their e-mail and chat. But they still have to call in somewhere to retrieve their voice mails.”

With unified messaging, users can receive an alert when a new voicemail message is left on a company extension, then access the message in WAV file format and play it on a handheld device, Herrington says.

In the past, it was tough to justify a unified messaging rollout based solely on the convenience of such features. But as corporate voicemail systems reach retirement age, companies have the rationale they need to consider unified messaging-enabled replacements.

Cost justification

Many corporate voice mail systems are getting old, and vendors are announcing plans to cease development and stop providing support services for a lot of legacy gear, says Krithi Rao, a research analyst at market consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. First-generation voice mail systems from vendors such as Octel, Centigram and Digital Sound are dead or on their last legs.

As replacement becomes avoidable, IT buyers considering unified messaging products from big telephony players including Cisco, Avaya, Nortel and Siemens, as well as smaller specialists such as Active Voice, Adomo, AVST and Unified Communications.

The proof is in the numbers.

After anaemic growth in 2003, the market for unified messaging products is starting to take off. Vendors reported an average 12 percent revenue growth in 2004 – a big increase over the four percent reported in 2003, and a huge gain for a mature market, according to analyst firm IDC in Framingham, Mass.

Last year the market grew an additional 9.9 percent to $410 million, and IDC expects it to increase by nine percent this year.

One more indication of just how hot the market is getting is Microsoft’s renewed focus on UM. It plans to include a unified messaging component in Exchange 12, which is due out by early 2007.

San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems Inc. – a long-established player in the telecom space – has bundled up its tools for all kinds of communication in enterprises and giving the set an appropriately broad brand name: the Cisco Unified Communications system.

The range of products covers voice, e-mail, text, collaboration and videoconferencing capabilities, as well as the ability to reach the right person on the first try on no matter what device they are using through presence technology.

It builds on Cisco’s current lineup offered under the IP Communications banner, namely its CallManager, Unity, MeetingPlace and IP Contact Center products, and adds three major new software products as well as new features.

The right fit

For companies interested in UM, an important factor to consider is architecture. Not all platforms work the same. Some store different message types in a single repository, while others provide a single access layer but use separate message stores for each message type.

Companies need to carefully evaluate the architecture that makes the most sense for their situation, Rao says. In some cases it may be desirable from a record-keeping perspective to keep related voicemail and e-mail messages stored together. In addition, having a single message repository to administer and manage may appeal to some companies.

On the flip side, some companies view a single message store for both voicemail and e-mail messages as a liability. “If their e-mail goes down, they don’t want their voicemail going down at the same time,” Rao says.

Integration, too, is no small matter. Unified messaging products often are tied to a number of existing enterprise systems. When University of California at Berkeley went live with Unified Communications’ Communite software last fall, it integrated the system to its e-mail systems, Centrex and Nortel PBX gear, iPlanet LDAP directory, and Kerberos security system.

For companies that want an all-in-one package, there are unified messaging vendors that will bundle items such as a directory server, storage and security functions with the messaging features to create a standalone system. But UC Berkeley wanted to make use of its existing systems, including the campus LDAP directory and storage-area network (SAN), says Terri Kouba, a systems developer at the university.

It made the implementation more complex, but ongoing management is easier, she says. “In my unit, which is communication and network services, we can have the expertise in the ISDN piece of it and the voice network, but we don’t have to know LDAP, and we don’t have to have a SAN expert. We can utilize the expertise that already exists on campus,” Kouba says.

Companies also should consider their long-term plans for IP telephony when choosing a unified messaging platform, experts say. IP isn’t a prerequisite for unified messaging — companies can deploy a unified messaging suite alongside a conventional TDM phone switch, which UC Berkeley did.

But IP and SIP technologies are forcing companies to reconsider their entire infrastructure, Rao says. As they do so, it makes sense to consider voicemail replacements that offer unified messaging capabilities and can take advantage of interactivity among phone, e-mail and instant messaging applications.

Lately vendors have been tweaking their unified messaging products to minimize disruptions during rollouts. For example, by incorporating commands that are familiar to users, such as “delete,” “move” and “forward” for managing voicemail messages via an e-mail interface, vendors can lessen the end-user training requirement. “Users are able to use the same controls, same interface, same commands. Everything they do with e-mail they can now do with voice messages as well,” Rao says.

That said, it’s important to evaluate what level of access to give to each end user, Rao says. Not every employee needs all the features available in a unified messaging platform, and companies can save money by judiciously doling out access to employee segments.

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