Will Unified Messaging Be Worth Your Time?

Paul Rubens

Unified messaging should be huge – the ability to receive e-mails, IMs, voice mail, and even faxes, in a single unified inbox sounds very convenient indeed. This raises one very large question: Why do you seldom meet anyone with the ability to do this? The truth is the that while unified messaging is always about to take off, it never really seems to do so.

Not entirely, anyway. E-mail access to voice mail is becoming reasonably common, and where it is implemented anecdotal evidence suggests that it is extremely popular with end users. The big problem really is finding a solid business reason to implement a complete unified messaging system which includes instant messaging and other communications methods. Basically, it’s a productivity play, but how much more productive will users become if they have a unified inbox? And is it possible to implement a unified messaging system which makes sense financially, given those likely productivity gains?

In practice, it’s only sensible to consider a unified messaging strategy if you already have or are planning to buy an IP PBX and a converged voice and data network, because it’s simply not economically feasible to implement this type of setup solely for the purpose of enabling a unified messaging system. On the other hand, if these are on the cards already, then unified messaging is only likely to add five to ten percent to the cost of an IP PBX, according to Matthias Machowinski, a directing analyst at Infonetics Research.

The principal driver for IP PBXs and converged voice and data networks is (obviously) IP telephony, so as this becomes more common, the economic case for unified messaging becomes easier to make. (That’s assuming that the likely productivity gains can be established and are worthwhile in the first place.) Infonetics research suggests that in the United States, twenty to forty percent of large companies have or are adopting VoIP, and about twenty percent of mid-sized companies. Of these companies, Infonetics reckons about seventy-five percent have adopted some form of unified messaging system, which sounds high, but given there are many more medium sized companies than large ones, the overall figure could be around fifteen percent of medium and large sized companies. Not a huge percentage, given how long people have been touting the supposed benefits of unified messaging. As far as vendors are concerned, Avaya heads the unified messaging market, but competitors Nortel, Cisco and Alcatel-Lucent are gaining, according to Infonetics’ research.

As an aside, it’s interesting (but not surprising) to note that few vendors have been touting the risks of a unified messaging system, although there’s no doubt that they do introduce new vulnerabilities. “Unified messaging definitely introduces a security hole,” says Machowinski. “Before, when you lost a laptop, your corporate data was at risk. Now you could have someone with a stolen laptop receiving or even making phone calls and impersonating employees. But when we talk to companies considering unified messaging, security is not generally seen as a barrier to implementation.”

With a unified messaging system in place, there is a strong case for a unified security, hygiene and archiving solution that supervises all corporate messages. Here’s why: In the future, users will most likely be able to set preferences as to how they receive communications, so e-mails sent to them could be converted to instant messages and so on. Equally, using some sort of corporate directory database and a communicator application, users will be able to select a contact, see their presence status, and choose how to contact them: by voice, e-mail, or IM. Over time, the distinction between different media will become blurred as messages are routinely delivered in a different medium to the one they were sent in.

This puts security vendors with complete security products in a strong position compared to companies offering point solutions for particular media, according to Matthew Cain, a research vice president at Gartner. “Common records, hygiene and archival policy is essential as you don’t want to apply all these by modality,” he says. In this light, it is easy to see why Symantec purchased IM security software maker IM Logic in January 2006 for an undisclosed sum, to incorporate it into its e-mail security offering.

So does unified messaging increase productivity? The jury is still out on that one, although the best answer is probably “it depends.” In some cases, the ability to access voice mail as “visual voice-mail” sent by e-mail and accessed on a mobile phone may well be a time saver, especially if this enables important messages to be dealt with quickly.

But changing the way people send and receive messages , or indeed adding new ways to communicate, can often have unexpected results. “Many people thought that by using IM they would reduce the amount of e-mail traffic they received, but what they actually found was that IM reduces voice traffic,” says Cain. “The important question is whether there is a finite number of communications that you receive in a day – so does unified messaging just rebalance how you receive them – or do new modalities increase the number of communications you receive? Four out of five of the people we talk to say this will actually increase the number of interactions they have every day.”

The danger is that if it becomes too easy to send messages, and if all messages are delivered to one big unified inbox, then instead of increasing productivity, unified messaging may simply increase the amount of communications employees have to plow through each day before they can sit down and get any work done. And without a strong productivity argument, what’s the attraction of unified messaging in the first place?

Article courtesy of Instant Messaging Planet

Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens is a technology journalist specializing in enterprise networking, security, storage, and virtualization. He has worked for international publications including The Financial Times, BBC, and The Economist, and is now based near Oxford, U.K. When not writing about technology Paul can usually be found playing or restoring pinball machines.

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