TECHNOLOGY Merges Phone, Fax, E-Mail

Monday, November 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ 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.

A few dozen companies sell these bundled products and services and so far their customers range from free-lance writers working from home to juggernauts of commerce like Microsoft Corp.

Although features vary, UM systems work toward one goal: funneling sundry electronic messages into a single repository _ in most cases an e-mail inbox.

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, either via the Web or telephone, or both. 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. ``I can send a fax no matter where I am, without having to pay the outrageous rates charged by hotels.''

Neal Matteo, 43, managing director of a New York 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. ``I was able to review the documents. They came up beautifully.''

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

One of those, Captaris Speech for Microsoft Exchange _ designed for use on large corporations' computer networks _ 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.

``I skim them, just enough to get the gist,'' he said. ``If it's junk mail I delete it. Or I can listen to enough of the message to respond.''

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 Warrington, Pa.-based Unified-View, which analyzes unified messaging systems.

More messages also mean more spam, or junk e-mail. Since many of the services charge users a per-minute fee while logged in, spam will start costing people money.

For individual consumers, there are a few options.

Call Sciences, based in Edison, N.J., sells monthly UM service for about $25 per month, depending on use. For that price, Call Sciences provides an individual telephone number that connects to the company's computer system, along with a Web-based mailbox for voice messages, faxes and e-mail.

Call Sciences' system includes a tracking service called ``Find me, Follow me'' to direct incoming calls to a customer's home, work or cellular telephone, depending on personal settings. If the customer doesn't answer, the caller leaves a voice message, which gets sent to the e-mailbox.

The messages, whether voice or text, can be accessed remotely, via the Web, or from a phone, using the service's text-to-speech reader.

Listening to a fax is more error-prone than an e-mail because the fax image must first be converted to text, then to sound. Fax readers work if the document was sent via computer, not from a fax machine, Zimmer said.

A hand-scrawled fax can't be converted to intelligible sound.

Most of the other outsourced UM options are similar in price and features to Call Sciences'.

Hollywood, Calif.-based j2 Global Communications Inc., offers various services range in price from free to $12.50 per month, plus 10 cents a minute during use.

For the do-it-yourself crowd, Smith Micro Software Inc., based in Irvine, Calif., sells a $69.95 software package called HotFax MessageCenter that offers the same basic capabilities.

At the other end of the spectrum, companies like Captaris Inc., of Kirkland, Wash., and Avaya Inc., of Basking Ridge, N.J., provide in-house software packages for corporate get-it-all-in-one-box systems.

The Captaris and Avaya systems cost hundreds of dollars per user to purchase and install, which usually requires hiring an experienced outsourcer to integrate them into a company's computer and telephone networks.