Unified Messaging

By Nigel Alexander and Ben Feder

Unified Messaging is taking our industry by storm. Here are two different accounts by Nigel Alexander and Ben Feder who represent companies that are joining voice and data at the desktop of holy matrimony.

I (Nigel) have just finished rereading Aldous Huxley’s, futuristic book, Brave New World. Last month I read Orwell’s 1984 (again), watched Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey, reviewed the predictions of Nostradamus, and even reread Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues.

I was stunned to find that in all these predictive masterpieces of film and literature, voice mail appears to have been completely overlooked. This means one of two things, (a) I am in completely the wrong business, or (b) voicemail will become so ubiquitous, that these visionaries of the past simply accepted it as a part of life, and forgot to mention it. I really hope it’s the latter!

According to a nameless 1997 study, (nameless because the owners wanted a fortune to allow me to quote their name in this article), the U.S. basic automated voice messaging services industry was about $2.7 billion, with an 8 to 12% annual growth rate. That means that by now it is well over $3 billion and growing. As you would expect, the Bell companies have 85% of it and apparently there are 4,200 small independent voice mail companies sharing the remaining 15%. That’s a lot of us. Too many, actually.

This thing called “Unified Messaging” is going to change the face of this industry completely. By the term “Unified Messaging,” I mean a voice mailbox that can do everything except make coffee. It will:

  • Gather all your messages from home, office and mobile phones into one mailbox;
  • Notify your pager or PCS phone of all message activity in your mailbox;
  • Store voice, fax and email messages, read email back over the phone, play voice mail over your PC and deliver faxes anywhere you may want them;
  • Dial all your numbers simultaneously when a caller reaches voice mail and needs you urgently;
  • Capture the numbers of people who leave you messages, and call them back at the touch of a key;
  • Allow you to make calls from your mailbox;
  • Eventually do all this in response to your voice commands, and not key presses.

They (whoever “they” are!) tell us that this type of service will do three things to the industry. First, it will grow the messaging services industry from $3,000,000,000 to $30,000,000,000 over the next decade. Second, these services will be too complicated for the Bell companies to deliver effectively, and they will lose their dominant market position; and third, it will be too complex for companies to maintain their own equipment and they will come crawling back to the service bureaus they abandoned when voice mail equipment dropped in price so dramatically.

Personally, I can’t wait. I can visualize the scene a haggard, middle-aged, dejected man, on his knees, pleading for my unified messaging service. I smile smugly and respond: “I’m sorry Mr. Smith. I see from your record that you cancelled our service in 1994 when you bought a voice mail system tell me, where was your loyalty why should I take you back now? Have you changed?”

Seriously though, this is going to be huge. Not today, probably not even tomorrow, but over the next decade. As William Shatner is so fond of saying about Priceline.com “Its big, really big.”

So, what are we doing about it? Well, at Multi-Link, we are preparing to offer full unified messaging on Glenayre equipment later this year. It’s costly, and the provisioning is going to be complex and intricate, but hey, if I think its difficult, just imagine how Mr. Bell is going to feel.

We’re expanding the number of cities we serve. In May of last year we just served Denver. Now we serve Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Raleigh and are looking at several more cities this year. We are merging with automated voice mail service bureaus, upgrading their equipment when necessary, and preparing for the boom that will surely come.

Voice mail, its growing up fast, and its much like your awkward, pimply, teenager who’s growing up fast. The last 10 years have been great fun; the next few will be tricky, but 10 years from now the rewards will be unbelievable.

Nigel Alexander is CEO of Multi-Link Telecommunications, a voice mail company with over $10 million in sales. Multi-Link is headquartered in Denver, Colorado, and is publicly traded on NASDAQ under the symbol MLNK. Nigel can be reached 303-313-2001.

The future of unified messaging has already happened with growth of the industry forecasted at over $1.2 billion by 2003. People working in the finance, real estate, and travel industries, as well as many others, are taking advantage of unified messaging today to simplify their communications. With the growth of mobile phone and hand-held computer use, corporations and individuals are seeking easier, more efficient ways to receive messages. And the opportunities for telephone answering services to broaden their service offerings with unified messaging are enormous.

Unified messaging simplifies every day communications for employees by letting them manage all of their messages using a PC or a telephone. This means employees spend less time managing messages and more time doing their jobs. Traveling employees, such as executives and sales people, also benefit from unified messaging, because they can manage their messages, including faxes and email, while they are on the road. In the past, this often required cumbersome remote access solutions or calling the main office to get these messages.

People can and should choose how they communicate. While they may be receiving voice mail from a live telephone answering service, unified messaging from MessageClick provides a means to receive faxes in their email 24 hours a day. No need to worry about busy signals or machines that are out of paper.

MessageClick’s follow-me service is a value-added service in which people can call your single number and it will ring all your telephones (mobile, home, office, etc.) in the order you prefer.

Time is the primary resource that none of us have enough of, and recent statistics suggest that the growing implementation of unified messaging will yield productivity gains equivalent to approximately 30 minutes per person every day. Why have fax machines, answering machines, multiple phone numbers, email, and pagers, when it makes communications complicated? Why not have one central place to receive all of your messages? For example, if most businesses were organized like the traditional communication industry, we would go to one store to buy shoe laces another to buy the left shoe and another to buy a different right shoe. We scoff at the U.S. mail but at least people have only one zip code versus multiple area codes for office, home, cell and other numbers. The post office has no right to change your address, yet the communication industry owns your many phone addresses.

Widespread adoption of any new technology takes some time. However, all signs point to the success of this industry, with thousands of new customers signing up for unified messaging services every day; about 2,000 of them signing up for MessageClick alone. We will continue to improve upon our technology and allow companies in the telephone answering service industry, as well as others, to offer unified messaging as a value-added service.

Ben Feder is chief executive officer of MessageClick. Before founding the company, Mr. Feder was an executive with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Serving as one of News Corp.’s youngest executive vice presidents, Mr. Feder developed and managed Internet services for businesses and consumers, and created a joint venture with MCI at Delphi Internet Services, a wholly owned subsidiary. Mr. Feder holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from Columbia University. MessageClick is a leading provider of Internet-based unified messaging and outsourced faxing services. Partners include EarthLink, Juno, @Home, RCN and MindSpring. Founded in 1996, with headquarters in New York City, the company operates a global Internet messaging network that facilitates high-quality messaging 24 hours a day.

Publisher’s Note: The new hype term when it comes to unified messaging is Digital Subscriber Line ( DSL). DSL is a modem technology using packet switching technology that operates independent of the voice telephone system, allowing the telephone companies to provide the service without locking up circuits for long calls. Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (ADSL) service provides faster downstream speeds and is suited for Internet usage and video on demand, where the heaviest transmission requirement is from the provider to the customer.

For consumers, DSL means a super-fast Internet connection without any fancy new wiring, which won’t interrupt standard telephone service, thus eliminating the need for an extra phone line. For businesses, DSL means multiple voice lines at a fraction of T-carrier pricing, and bandwidth that can be dynamically assigned for data.

The availability of DSL is very limited at present, but Cahners In-Stat Group has forecast DSL growth at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 63.7 percent over the next five years. DSL is coming, and with it the opportunities for new revenue.

DSL will initially find its way into the small business and home consumer market, exactly the demographic that would find service provider unified messaging appealing. DSL solves the problem of bandwidth lag-time when downloading voice messages in the home or office. Its high-speed connection will make the messaging seem instantaneous.

Because DSL is an always-on technology, the computer can be left on to receive messages 24 hours a day, and the consumer has to only peek at the computer screen to see any email messages, live TAS messages, voice mail messages, or faxes. For these reasons, DSL is an outstanding medium in which to deliver unified messaging when it becomes available in your area.

[From Connection Magazine – March 2000]

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