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United Front

Don't look now--you may soon be able to have all types of messages coming into a single inbox.

What if your voice mail, faxes, e-mail and instant messages were delivered to the same inbox? That would be a good thing-especially if you could pick just the message types and interface you wanted.

It's called unified messaging (UM) or unified communications (UC), and it's not new. It has been tried for years with limited success. That's going to change.

Researchers say spending on UC will increase by a factor of 10 by 2008, as the number of blended inboxes grows about 500 percent. By then, says market research firm The Radicati Group, as many as 95 million folks worldwide will be able to pick up some combination of messages from a universal inbox. By the way, that solves another problem, adds Radicati market analyst Teney Takahashi: juggling different address books.

The convenience and productivity benefits of a universal inbox are obvious, but it's likely to develop in fits and starts. One reason is that voice, fax and pages are still mostly analog forms. The rapid uptake of cellular and VoIP networks that automatically convert them into digital packets helps. So do other recent improvements.

"In the past, network and device limitations have been a key barrier," says Takahashi. "The increased bandwidth of wireless networks and advanced functionality of mobile devices create an ideal environment."

On the other hand, every day seems to bring a new messaging option to integrate-different IM systems, e-mail forwarded to handhelds, different combinations of voice mail, e-mail and SMS text on handhelds. Each demands its own set of front-end clients, back-end servers, operating systems and communication protocols.

It helps to have end-to-end control, as IP-PBX vendors do. Avaya blends voice mail and e-mail with text-to-speech software so messages can be retrieved by any phone or computer. Also, broadband internet connectivity is making it possible to house all inboxes on some distant web server capable of high-volume message processing.

Verizon's new iobi Home service combines voice mail, e-mail and addresses accessible over a wireline or wireless phone, or an internet-connected computer. Launched in New England, the $8-per-month service is being rolled out nationwide and will be joined by a business version, iobi Professional.

A similar new service from SBC Communications, called Unified Communications, adds faxes and text-to-speech technology for listening to e-mails and fax headers over the phone, or voice mails on your computer. It's available in Southwestern states for $8 to $13 per month, depending on your area and messaging options.

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This article was originally published in the January 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: United Front.

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