Using a single interface for voice, e-mail, faxes and more:

The initial Hype surrounding unified messaging (UM) when it was introduced around 1994 has kept up; not only has the technology evolved, but so has the name. UM has evolved into unified communications (UC) and, as the name implies, this latest generation offering helps unify different aspects of communication: voice, video, fax, e-mail, IM, conferencing, mobility, etc.

 “There is an increase in demand in response to the recent market flurry around unified communications,” said Diane Shariff, director of Communications Applications, Avaya.

People use so many types of communication in their daily lives—multiple phone numbers, mobile devices, PDAs, e-mail—and unified communication helps meld together various forms. In addition, as Shariff said, “The technology has improved and standards have evolved, plus the fact that users are simply overwhelmed has increased overall acceptance. A simple feature such as ‘one number’ where I can set my cell phone to ring at the same time as my office phone helps in responsiveness to customers.”

Through unified communications, users essentially have one inbox for all of their communication needs. A single interface—Microsoft Outlook is popular—accesses and manages e-mail, faxes and voice mail. The interface allows users to read, print and forward faxes and voice mail. Recent trends include “click to talk” or “click to conference” from an instant message.

Speech access is an intriguing advance in unified communications. One dials into the unified mailbox and, following voice prompts, asks the interactive personal assistant questions in an almost Disney-like session. You can tell the system to read e-mail for you and even respond in various ways. Though futuristic sounding, the technology is there, readily available and accessible.

Contractors take note

From the contractor’s stance, getting customers primed and ready for unified communications offerings is like any other communication application. There is a heavy reliance on the infrastructure, which is an absolute necessity in order for things to work properly.

Since most voice traffic rides on an Internet protocol (IP) network, one of the primary considerations when contemplating taking on unified communications—or any other application—is making sure that the network can handle the traffic.

This is important because, as Shariff said, “Customers are just not forgiving when it comes to delays in a voice network. It is somewhat OK when data chugs along, but people will hang up if there is a voice delay.”

“It is also important to make sure that the network’s configuration can meet the changes associated with adding on unified communications,” Shariff said. That falls into a sweet spot known by most contractors as network analysis. Having customers interested in adopting a UC solution could potentially lead to more work since, from a systems standpoint, additional servers are generally required for support. More servers mean more cabling must be run.

Today’s ever-changing world also makes new technologies useful in ways that many may not even realize.

“Speech access is also becoming instrumental in areas such as airports. Speech access and unified communications allows for users to access their e-mail from anywhere,” Shariff adds. In addition, as road rules change for cellphone usage, people may find that having something as handy as speech access tied into the main network can be a time saver, and, potentially, a traffic violation saver.

Though not all customers will choose unified communications, contractors may be surprised at the number of current clients that have interest in this area. This is especially important for contractors who have established firm relationships with companies that offer UC solutions, as this small niche offering may prove to be more popular as time goes by. Hey, even the most tech-savvy road warrior and constantly connected individual needs a little help.                EC

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached via e-mail at JenLeahS@msn.com.