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Rolling data, voice, faxes into one

If current projections are correct, we may eventually be using a single "unified messaging" device for much our personal communications.

If current projections are correct, we may eventually be using a single device much of our personal communications.

Information technology research firm Ovum recently released a report that finds "unified messaging"--technology that allows access to email, voice mail, faxes, and other information from a single tool--will grow strongly and eventually replace separate email, voice mail, and fax systems.

But Ovum cautions that existing products in the market are immature and that users are still confused about what unified messaging really is.

Ovum defines unified messaging as a system that allows users access to all of their messages, regardless of location, communication device or the type of connection used.

The report predicts that unified messaging mailboxes will grow from around 200,000 worldwide at the end 1997 to more than 110 million by 2003. Worldwide product revenue will also increase rapidly from a negligible market to a whopping $9 billion in 2003.

Ovum predicts that much of this revenue will come from voice mail, which unified messaging will largely replace and eventually expand. Growth will initially be strongest in North America but will catch up in Europe. And Asia-Pacific will remain quite a distant third market, though certain countries in the region will see robust growth.

Driving this expanding market is the continuing need to enhance office productivity, said Ovum consultant Madan Sheina, who co-authored the report. "Currently everything is separated--email, paper fax, voice mail. If you have a single source, you have more productivity."

Another factor driving the unified messaging market is a change in professional culture, he said. "You have more and more remote workers." It's easier for those working from home, hotel rooms, and conference halls to have one single source for accessing there messages.

The report also underlined a flaw in many of the products out there. Although the products Ovum evaluated improve productivity, they all omit at least one major feature.

Existing products are all struggling to achieve the full set of capabilities that we would expect of unified messaging, regardless of the product architecture employed. Nevertheless, Ovum found that all products can deliver significant advantages over their previous counterparts.

Just as there are a varied bunch of players in the market, there are as many different names for this type of technology. While some call it unified messaging, others call it universal, multimedia, or integrated messaging.

Although the market is relatively young, Sheina pointed to a number of companies leading the charge. These companies are broken into two camps, for servers and for clients.

On the server side, Lucent's newly acquired Octel puts out Octel Unified Messenger, which Sheina said is one of the more popular products. On the client side, he said Applied Voice, Active Voice and Nortel all have products commanding the market.

According to the report, companies are using a variety of names for the same functions or conversely claiming that their messaging system is "unified" when it clearly is far short of that.

However, Sheina said companies are working to clarify these differences to avoid confusion and to attract more customers. "This is a huge market. And there is a lot of room to grow."