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Unified messaging – voicemail for 3G?

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Voicemail is regarded as a killer application for telephony and some would say communications killer too - too many hid behind a voicemail screen, until mobile phones became the prevalent business communication tool. This is changing: Quocirca’s recent research of 150 decision makers in enterprises in the UK, Italy and Germany indicates a significant frequency of employees using a mobile in preference to a desk phone. So how does that change the voicemail requirement?

Stored messages are genuinely useful for mobile communication particularly when the recipient is out of coverage or on other calls. But certain message formats, such as SMS, MMS and even mobile emails are stored, then forwarded or otherwise pushed onto the handset in varied and complex ways. Third generation mobile networks and video telephony adds the further dimension of stored video messages.

Each of these services sits inside its own silo with an isolated message store, so the complexity of dealing with the total set is passed straight to the user. Often it’s handled badly on the device and there’s little commonality or shared inboxes.

Enter the return of unified messaging. One central store with multiple access methods.

Why now? When unified messaging was first touted, the technology wasn’t quite up to it, mainly because the gaps between the silos could only be bridged with case by case integration. Arguably it was also a techno-nirvana that didn’t really solve specific user communications needs. Now, IP is moving to the core of telecoms as the unifying glue and users have become familiar with and somewhat dependant on the individual stored messaging services - voicemail, SMS or email.

One further thought. Unified messaging was sold as a solution by telecoms equipment companies, because its impact was deep in the network. With IP, it rises to surface as an application, placing it more in the realm of IT companies and services.

There is a big concern surrounding the cost of legacy voicemail, and many existing systems are nearing their end of life. Voicemail storage systems attached to the core of the network are expensive to provide and take up valuable real estate, as they’re often in city centre locations by major network switch points. IP solutions can be positioned anywhere, even outsourced or hosted outside the operator.

Larger enterprises are already pushing email to the network edge and smaller companies using email hosting, in order to give easier access to remote and mobile employees, but few have contemplated the consequences of IP applied to other messaging formats. Hosted voicemail and messaging services permit users to switch more readily from one mode of access to another – mobilising the office worker without mobilising the entire office. External message store management might faze larger organisations for a while, but for others with minimal IT or communications expertise, hosted unified messaging might prove rather attractive.

For the coming generation of 3G users, voice message boxes alone will be inadequate, people need to store and send video, image, voice and text mail – so unified messaging might come back into fashion. However, it probably needs a new name to shake off the legacy of past failures – Multimedia Unified Mailboxes, anyone?

Copyright © 2004,

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