Years after email systems broadly converted to Internet standards, voice mail systems are slowly cracking open their proprietary shells.
Today, two vendors, Lucent Technologies (LU) and Centigram Communications (CGRM), said that they are the first companies to successfully deploy voice mail systems that use an emerging standard called voice profile for Internet messaging (VPIM).
VPIM promises to do for voice mail what standards such as SMTP (simple mail transport protocol) and POP (post office protocol) did for email, which is enable dozens of disparate software systems to exchange messages with each other over the Internet. Currently, voice mail systems used by businesses and phone companies are proprietary and therefore incompatible; users can only perform functions such as message forwarding and broadcasting within their own systems.
"Voice mail is ten years behind email," said Glenn Parsons, a standards engineer at Northern Telecom, a company that is developing VPIM products.
But through VPIM, a user could broadcast a voice message from Octel Communications' voice mail system to hundreds of users on a Nortel system over the Internet or a private IP-based network. VPIM will also allow fax-mail servers to work with each other.
All of the leading voice mail companies have pledged to support VPIM, including Nortel, Siemens, ReadyCom, Octel, CTI Information Systems, and IRdg. Those companies and the Messaging Alliance, group of regional telephone companies, are involved in the VPIM Work Group, a coalition in the Electronic Messaging Association that developed the VPIM specification.
Most voice mail companies are aiming to have new VPIM-ready systems on the market in the fall. But Lucent and Centigram are already busy testing their systems to make sure that they work with each other, and they're using their own employees as guinea pigs.
Today, the companies said that about 50 of their employees are exchanging messages using Lucent's Intuity system and Centigram's Series 6 Communications server. Earlier this month, all of the vendors involved in the VPIM Work Group demonstrated test versions of the VPIM product communicating with each other at the EMA's conference.
Lucent and Centigram may have been the first two companies to begin testing their VPIM systems with each other, but one company, Octel, already supports VPIM in a shipping product. Since last year, Octel's OcteLink has included VPIM, but the feature wasn't very useful--there were no other VPIM products on the market with which it could work.
Another company, Nortel, said it will have a VPIM-ready product on the market by September, and that will be none to soon for its customers.
"We see a lot of customers saying, 'Our company is global and I don't have the authority to tell people in another country that they need to buy this voice mail system,'" said John Lenihan, director of marketing for multimedia messaging at Nortel. "Probably 50 percent of our customers ask us for this product right now."