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Climbing out of the Messaging Quagmire

Unified communication systems help busy people sort and track phone calls, faxes and e-mailsBusy executives are turning to unified communications, also called unified messaging, to sort out the cacophony of ringing phones, whirring faxes and chiming alerts of new e-mail. Overseeing the chaotic array of communication may be too much for business owners to handle, and an industry observer says putting it all in the hands of outside experts is a growing trend.

“This stuff is getting increasingly complex. The momentum is toward a managed service,” says Robert Rosenberg, president of The Insight Research Corp. in Boonton, which provides market research for the telecom industry.

It can cost a small to mid-size business about $10,000 to hire a provider to equip an office with the necessary hardware and software to make different types of communication devices work in concert, estimates Doug Rahn, president of IND Corp. in Parsippany, a provider of information technology solutions.

Forwarding phone calls from an office phone to another location is an early example of unified messaging in action. Rob Marschall, managing director of Internet protocol services with Broadview Networks Holdings Inc., says the push is on now to use mobile devices as a hub to manage communication. “I’m not going to be tied down to a desk and a [land-line] phone,” he says.

Broadview is a Rye Brook, N.Y.-based communications provider with offices in Newark. Marschall says the idea is to divert all messages to a central location where the user can easily sort the ones coming from important contacts. Computers connected to the Web are one place to send the messages, but a mobile phone, which is almost always on a busy executive’s hip, may be a better option.

Broadview, Verizon Communications Inc. in Basking Ridge and others offer services to exchange messages among land lines, mobile phones and computer desktops. By running communications over Internet protocols (IP), service providers can readily direct messages to any of those endpoints. “IP telephony is the foundation for almost anyone’s unified communication solution,” says Bobbi Phillips, director of business product strategy with Verizon.

Telecom companies and equipment providers typically manage unified messaging services, but others may want in on the action. Rahn speculates software giant Microsoft wants to offer broader management of communications in the next two to three years.

“It really looks like Microsoft is going into the phone environment pretty hard,” says Rahn.

Rahn says Microsoft’s Office Communications Server 2007 software, available now, provides Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service within a company and can send message alerts from land-line phones to PDAs and computers.

The software can also check the Microsoft Office calendars of other users for their availability to talk. Office Communications Server 2007 starts at $699, but shoots up to $3,999 for the large scale version.

Other services on the market provide visual voice mail, which sends a text or e-mail message with the caller’s name so the user can know who called without listening to the message.

This lets users prioritize their time listening to and returning the most important phone calls. Additional details in the e-mail or text can include the time and duration of the message.

Visual voice mail, which can be sent from any type of phone to a computer or mobile phone, is a feature of Verizon’s Hosted IP Centrix service. “From my desktop I have an interface that lets me see what voice mails are coming in, see who’s called me,” says Phillips. Centrix is a VoIP service managed by Verizon on behalf of its clients and costs about $35 per user per month, Phillips says.

She says Verizon is developing an add-on to its visual voice-mail service that will include the voice message content within the e-mail or text alert. She says Verizon expects to introduce the new voice-to-text feature by second quarter 2008.

Marschall says Broadview offers a telephony service that includes VoIP and message mailboxes that can convert a voice mail left at a land-line phone into a sound file. An alert is then sent to the user’s computer screen. Marschall says users can listen to the digital audio file, forward the message to an e-mail or download the message to an audio player device such as an iPod.

Marschall says Broadview is working on a message alert function due next year for the receipt of faxes. When fax messages arrive in the office, a text or e-mail is sent to the recipient’s computer desktop or mobile device.

He says Broadview’s hosted IP services start at about $550 per month.

The company plans to offer unified messaging mailboxes next year as a stand-alone offering for about $2 to $5 per month per mailbox without the additional hosted IP services.

Phillips reiterates the importance of getting faster access to the most crucial messages, especially for small-business owners who cannot afford to miss important calls. “Their telephone is their lifeline,” she says. “If they miss a call, they miss business.”

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