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Messaging company trains focus on video email

Tornado Development, backed by Intel and Global Crossing, is trying to raise the bar for online message systems, adding video email to its stable of voice mail, email and fax in-boxes.

An all-in-one Internet messaging company backed by Intel and Global Crossing is trying to raise the bar for online message systems, adding video email to its stable of voice mail, email and fax in-boxes.

Tornado Development, which offers its "unified messaging" technology to clients like Global Crossing and OfficeMax.com, is expected to announce a $5 million investment next week from the GEO Interactive Media Group, an Israel-based streaming media company, according to the companies involved.

As part of that deal, the company will add support for sending and receiving video emails to its system. Customers will be able to record and send messages with a regular personal-computer camera and access them inside their in-boxes.

Although the idea of video email has been floating around the Net for years, Tornado is leading the other unified messaging companies down this particular path. Most other companies have focused their attention on meshing telephone messages, email and faxes, as well as on allowing access to a single in-box in as many ways as possible.

But at least as long as cameras and high-speed Net connections are a relative rarity in the online world, the potential size of Tornado's audience is questionable.

The idea is "intriguing," said Mark Plakias, vice president of voice and wireless commerce at the Kelsey Group. Few other of the messaging companies are pursuing this line of business today, he noted.

Nevertheless, Tornado will have to combat a long history of lukewarm consumer response to video email. Cameras and software for such uses have been available for at least half a decade, but they have yet to penetrate the mainstream market.

The new video wrinkle to unified messaging technology can be another selling point for Tornado as it makes its case to telephone carriers and corporations that its technology is worthy of being adopted inside the giant phone networks, a potentially lucrative market for any of the start-ups that can crack it.

"Tornado and GEO are now poised to take tremendous advantage of the convergence of rich-media and messaging technologies, placing both companies at the forefront of the (unified messaging) industry," Jeff Scheinrock, Tornado's CEO, said in a statement.

The company recently received a $28 million round of funding from Global Crossing, Intel, and venture capital firms Ares Management and QuestMark Partners. The company faces stiff competition for the carrier market from other well-connected companies, such as Phone.com, Webley and FollowMe.