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Volume turned up on universal messaging

Like free email before it, universal voice messaging is poised to become the next must-have portal application.

Like free email before it, universal voice messaging is poised to become the next must-have portal application.

Several companies--including software giant Microsoft--are looking to give voice to email by bringing free universal voice messaging to the Web.

The open question is which company in this small pool is likely to grab consumer loyalty as one of the first entrants.

Onebox.com and RocketTalk, the two main contenders in the nascent Web-based universal messaging sector that already have debuted products, are hoping to draw a sizable consumer following by providing the ability to send and receive voice messages over the Internet.

Microsoft is just beginning to formulate its universal voice messaging plans. This week, Microsoft president Steve Ballmer revealed the software giant's vision for unified messaging at the Supercomm show in Atlanta. Ballmer previewed the next release of Microsoft Exchange Server, code-named "Platinum," which will try to broaden support for all types of data from different sources in a single in-box.

"When it comes to unified messaging, our primary focus is on the knowledge worker, which will center around enterprises," said Robert Marcus, a product manager at Microsoft's Exchange Server division.

"While not speaking definitively about consumer focused UM solutions, I can say that in various parts of the organization, in particular in the MSN group, I know that discussions are going on, and people are evaluating how that will fit into the MSN offering in due course," said Marcus, adding that the exact timing of the offering is unclear.

Marcus also noted that Microsoft has "not made any investments at this time in any companies that provide technologies or competencies for that market."

Analysts agreed that the major portals--including Yahoo, America Online, and MSN--are certainly looking to integrate universal messaging functionality into their services.

RocketTalk chief executive and founder Jeff Weiner even hinted that the company is in discussion with the portal "with ears," referring to Disney's Go Network.

Portals breed personalization
The growing popularity of Web portals has helped transform the Internet into a centralized place where people flock to access personalized information. The central feature that draws repeated visits from consumers has been free, Web-based email. Lycos's acquisition of WhoWhere, Microsoft's purchase of Hotmail, and Yahoo's acquisition of Four11 serve as testament to that popularity.

The use of Web-based applications also has been growing, with portals providing users the ability to organize and manage their address books and calendars.

But universal messaging, while available for several years now, has reached only the corporate environment, and even there it is considered an incipient market. Universal messaging on a corporate level essentially integrates voice mail and email onto one desktop at a user's workstation. Analysts said that the service requires high-end, expensive products and makes sense only in the corporate setting.

Out in front
Now, Onebox and RocketTalk hope to bring universal messaging to consumers. Each company, however, offers fundamentally different products and services, with many analysts agreeing that Onebox is likely to reach a far larger audience.

Fullerton, California-based RocketTalk offers a small utility for Windows 95, 98, or NT for download on its Web site. Using a sound card, speakers, and a microphone, users can record messages and email them to anyone. If the recipient does not have RocketTalk software installed, the company's central server wraps a RocketPlayer utility around the message. A ten-second message is about 35K in size.

While RocketTalk is limited to voice communication between people using their personal computers and an Internet connection, Onebox has a far wider scope.

In its basic service, Onebox offers a free local telephone number where callers can send faxes and leave voice mail. Onebox users can then retrieve those messages using any number of devices, including their cell phones, telephones, or PCs. Email messages also can be retrieved at the designated local number. The company says there is no software to download or install, and that it plans to integrate its service with pager technology with its next release.

"The advantage Onebox has is not just that they offer unified messaging," said Lucas Graves, an analyst covering Web technologies at research firm Jupiter Communications. "Their advantage is that their core access device is not the computer but the telephone, which in theory can reach a much broader base of people."

Both companies rely on advertising to bring in revenues. RocketTalk's interface has a space for ads. Onebox, however, hopes to begin selling premium services while continuing to give away its free basic services, the company's founder, Bill Nguyen, said.

"If someone really likes Onebox and wants to use it to manage and integrate their home and work telephone numbers into their Onebox number, we will do that for them," said Nguyen, adding that such service will be available at some point in the near future. "These are the services we will charge for."

"Onebox will eventually be a lot less dependent on advertising than RocketTalk," said Graves. "Onebox has the opportunity to roll out things like IP telephony once they have a large enough user base."

Flying in the face of convention
RocketTalk's Weiner maintains that he is actually trying to keep his company from getting bogged down in the battle to provide universal messaging.

"It is a very simple proposition: RocketTalk is PC-to-PC voice messaging," he said. "That is how we are delineating ourselves. We are flying in the face of unified messaging dogma."

Weiner added that he believes people will want different interfaces for different types of communications.

"I've got a phone, I know where to get my voice mail. I have a fax machine, I know where to pick up my faxes," Weiner said.

But whether consumers really want different interfaces for their varied forms of communication is suspect given the quick rise in popularity of eFax and other similar services that allow users to receive faxes by email.

People also are placing their bets on RocketTalk. Venture capital firm Menlo Ventures, which also funded Hotmail, Infoseek, and UUNet, is backing RocketTalk.

The company's services launched in February and have as many as 35,000 registered users in 133 countries. Weiner said RocketTalk has relied on word of mouth rather than advertising to reach consumers.

But given universal messaging's slow start, some analysts wonder whether it will catch on, reserving their judgment for sometime in the future.

"My whole question is, are consumers going to get it?" said Dana Thorat, an analyst at International Data Corporation who covers residential telecommunications. "There is an issue of complexity and of quality of sound."