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Nortel backs voice mail standard

The Meridian Mail Net Gateway software supports a new protocol designed to let proprietary voice mail operate over the Net.

Northern Telecom will introduce a product tomorrow that could make voice mail systems a little more flexible and cheaper to use.

The company will announce the Meridian Mail Net Gateway, its first product based on a much-anticipated new protocol called voice profile for Internet mail (VPIM) that promises to let proprietary voice mail systems work with each other over the Internet. Nortel will begin beta testing tomorrow and plans to ship a final version of the software in July.

VPIM is meant to do for voice mail what standards such as SMTP (simple mail transport protocol) and POP (post office protocol) did for email: allow dozens of disparate software systems to exchange messages with each other over the Internet. Currently, different voice mail systems don't interoperate, so callers can only perform functions such as message forwarding and broadcasting within their own systems.

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.

VPIM could also cut down on long distance telephone charges. Voice messages can be transmitted over the Internet, where long distance fees don't apply, rather than the traditional phone network.

"It puts voice mail on common ground with email as a normal way of communicating," Darrell Jennings, assistant vice president of Nortel's Meridian messaging group, said today.

It's no surprise that Nortel is introducing a VPIM gateway since every major voice mail player in the industry, including Siemens, Lucent Technologies, Centigram Communications, and Octel, has vowed to support it in their products.

All those companies belong to the VPIM Work Group, a coalition in the Electronic Messaging Association that developed the VPIM specification. Like most email packages, VPIM is based on existing Internet protocols such as SMTP, POP, IMAP, and MIME.

Nortel's system won't be the first to support VPIM. Octel claims to have supported VPIM in its OcteLink voice mail system since last year. Last month, Lucent and Centigram both began testing VPIM systems with their own employees.

Nortel's Meridian Mail Net Gateway will cost $3000. The product consists of gateway software for a Windows NT Server and a PC card.