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Lend an ear to your e-mail

November 12, 2001

Send Dave Zimmer a fax, chances are he'll listen to it on his phone. Send him an e-mail, he might listen to that, too.

But if you leave Zimmer a voicemail message, the market researcher will pick it up in his e-mail box.

Sound confusing? It's not supposed to be.

The technology is called Unified Messaging and you're apt to be hearing a lot about it as the need grows to better organize computer, phone and fax communications.

Although features vary, UM systems work toward one goal: funneling sundry electronic messages into a single repository.

UM systems, made up of a combination of hardware and software, enable a computer to convert an incoming phone call to a digital wav sound file, then deliver it to an e-mailbox, usually with an icon that distinguishes the message from a typical e-mail. Click on the icon and the message plays over the computer's speakers.

Faxes arrive in the same inbox, attached to an e-mail as an image file. They're opened in a separate image viewer.

Beyond the ability to check a single device for all messages, many UM systems offer remote access to the inbox. Hence, the ability to listen to faxes and e-mail.

"Being able to get my voicemail when I'm out of the country is a big win for me," said David Farber, a University of Pennsylvania telecommunications professor who subscribes to a UM service from j2 Global Communications.

Neal Matteo, 43, managing director of a management software firm, said his unified messaging service, provided by Call Sciences Inc., allowed him to review a legal contract while traveling in Pakistan in May.

"The fax came over the Web," said Matteo, who pays $150 per month for the service.

Some brand-new programs even understand voice commands, advertising handsfree access while driving.

One of those, Captaris Speech for Microsoft Exchange, allows a user to listen to various types of messages but also create and send them using only voice commands.

Improvements in voice-to-text and text-to-voice technology - if you don't mind the computer-generated monotone - allows UM systems to do a reasonable job of reading e-mail, said market researcher Zimmer.

There is a downside to unified messaging.

"Now that people are more responsive, we're going to end up with more messages to handle each day," said Zimmer, a principal at Unified-View, which analyzes unified messaging systems.

By Jim Krane, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. Copyright © 2001 Tallahassee Democrat


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