Mobile messaging

Employees today are becoming increasingly mobile. As a result of this remote working model, users are searching for tools and systems that will enable them to have access to information on the fly. Consequently, unified messaging is garnering growing interest in the local market.

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  October 30, 2003

Mobile messaging|~||~||~|Employees today are becoming increasingly mobile. Whether this means they spend more time on the road, in the air or, simply less time chained to their desk, one thing that remains crucial is access to information. As a result of this remote working model, users are searching for tools and systems that will enable them to have access to information on the fly. Consequently, unified messaging (UM), with its ability to unite various communication tools in one centralised mailbox that can be accessed either by phone or on the desktop, is garnering growing interest in the local market.

“What is happening in the working environment today is users are becoming more and more virtual and people are relying more and more on being able to do their day-to-day business by mobile communications, be it a mobile phone or a desktop that is mobile,” confirms John van der Linde, managing director, applications, Avaya Middle East.

“The whole concept [around unified messaging] is being effective and having information at your fingertips,” he adds.

Prime Connections International, for example, is reaping the benefits of installing 3Com’s NBX platform and its unified messaging capabilities. As a result, its employees and, more specifically, its sales agents are able to keep abreast of their incoming messages and respond to customer enquiries while they are out on the road.

“Most of our agents are travelling outside of the country seeing customers and vendors. They are able to connect to the back office using a virtual private network (VPN) and get all their messages — this is most important. They are able to get back to clients even if they are out of the office, so unified messaging is definitely improving our productivity and helping service customers more efficiently,” says Laji Rajan, business development manager, Prime Connections International.

Dubai Police is also able to service its customers more effectively following the deployment of a unified messaging platform from Captaris. The system has not only simplified its communications environment, but also enabled it to introduce a higher level of personalisation and quicker customer response times.

“We are able to respond to important messages in a very short period of time… No more telling customers, I will reply to you when I am back in the office,” comments Captain Khalid Nasser Al Razooqi, Dubai Police.

While these organisations are also looking to reap long term benefits, such as a reduced cost of ownership, the concept behind unified messaging is in essence a simple one. UM basically involves uniting the communications infrastructure of an enterprise to provide individual users with one reference point for all their messages.

“UM is a solution that allows you to deliver every e-mail, voicemail and fax message to a single inbox. These three communication mechanisms are delivered into a single integrated view,” confirms Nabeel Nawaz, IT account manager, Cisco Systems, Middle East.

Furthermore, unified messaging is not just about receiving messages but also being able to respond to them. As such, systems are driven by voice-to-text and text-to-voice features, which enable users to reply to e-mails and faxes over the phone and also receive voicemails on their desktop systems.

“Users should be able to deal with any message, they should be able to forward it, reply to it, archive it, print it, delete it — basically be able to manipulate it how they choose,” says Hisham Amili, international sales director, MEA, Mitel Networks.

As a result of this functionality and manipulation, an increasing number of users are joining Dubai Police and Prime Connections and examining the multiple benefits that UM can offer. These benefits extend beyond just access to information to include cost savings, productivity gains, simplified management and improved customer relationships.

Initially, enterprises can garner the cost benefits of converging three systems into one. Moreover, maintenance costs should be reduced — a survey from Radicati Group suggests a 66% drop in support costs or an annual saving of over US$500 per user.

Additionally, unified messaging can simplify management processes for network staff. Instead of having to configure three separate systems for users, they have one platform to administer. “The first thing that unified messaging gives enterprises is consistency, a centralised point of management and organisation of their communications means with customers,” says Geoff Egland, business development manager, Aspect Communications.

||**||User benefits|~||~||~|For the wholesale user community the benefits are also multiple. Again it simplifies their message management, so instead of having to consult their e-mail inbox, then pick up their phone to hear their voicemail messages and, finally, walk to the fax machine to retrieve paper messages, they can either can consult their desktop messaging system or, if they are out of the office, dial in to their central mailbox.

The flexibility and functionality of UM systems also enables users to track and retrieve specific or urgent messages. “For example, if users call their message box and it tells them they have eight messages — three e-mails, three faxes, and two marked urgent, users can just request the urgent messages and then respond to them,” says Amili.

Moreover, vendors claim the system is straightforward and easy for users to operate. For example, enabling ‘out of the office’ functions is a simple process. As in most cases the configuration has already been done in the back end, users merely need to check a box to activate the ‘follow me’ capabilities of their systems.

“With unified communications, users have a small piece of software on their desktop. They select ‘on my way’ and the system automatically activates the ‘follow me’ feature. The system knows that person is not at their desk, so it will follow them and try to locate them on different numbers,” says Stanislas de Boisset, network consultant, 3Com Middle East.

End users also uphold vendor claims that unified messaging is largely very simple to deploy and customise. “UM was easy for us to configure in three or four hours. The user configuration took a little more time, but plug & play is generally how I would describe it,” says Rajan.

Rajan does, however, concede that training is beneficial to the enterprise-wide rollout of unified messaging. “We didn’t take much support from the suppliers, but were given a small amount of training on the administration of the system and we have given the users training as well,” he states.

||**||Local concerns|~||~||~|Despite its benefits, however, industry observers say unified messaging is still struggling to make any large scale impact. According to Jean-Louis Previdi, senior vice president & service director, global networking strategies with Meta Group, UM solutions can be equated to a luxury item. While the technology may be nice to have, it is not a critical component in the network infrastructure.

“Right now we have not seen UM being heavily deployed, we have seen some people piloting it but more than 95% of the users are still running voicemail, wireless mail and traditional mail [separately],” says Previdi. “Even here in the Middle East, where the market is still quite healthy and still growing, the vast majority of enterprises are telling me that they are under tremendous cost pressures and they don’t have the budget for unified messaging,” he continues.

Furthermore, while cost savings may ultimately be reaped by enterprises using unified messaging, other sources suggest that the integration costs, alongside the investments companies have already made in their communications systems, can act as further deterrent.

“If somebody has gone to the bother of building themselves a complete e-mail system for their organisation it is a fairly substantial investment — as is a voice messaging service,” says Egland.

Analysts and indeed some vendors have also questioned the speed with which a return on investment (ROI) can be delivered. Although some industry reports have claimed a ROI can be achieved on certain solutions within 68 days, other sources suggest longer time periods.

“It will be some time until we see a widespread uptake of UM technology [because] there is a long ROI on the initial setup… and there is a lot of hardware and software involved,” comments Alex Watson, sales & marketing manager with Post CTI Middle East, an Intel communications technology provider.

More significantly for the local market, a lack of Arabic is impacting the uptake of unified messaging. Language support issues significantly compromise key features such as text-to-voice and voice-to-text. “The lack of Arabic speech recognition and text-to-speech is the main problem,” confirms Watson.

“There are automatic speech recognition (ASR) and text-to-speech (TTS) products available, but they are very limited in terms of their accuracy. They still leave a lot to be desired compared to their English counterparts and quality of recognition and vocalisation are key to the successful roll out of a UM solution,” he continues.

While vendors are quick to suggest that the prevalence of the English language in the business world diminishes this impact, the lack of Arabic language support is undoubtedly a hindrance to the regional uptake of the technology.

“There is a tremendous amount of interest [in unified messaging] in the Middle East. But if there is an environment that is predominantly Arabic, that poses some challenges because users want to be able to communicate with people in their local language. However, all the major global corporates are breaking in the technology,” says van der Linde.

Moving forward, vendors are promoting the idea of unified communications. This will involve not just the integration of voice, fax and e-mail functions, but also an extension into contact books and back end systems, as well as the introduction of real time capabilities.

“The bigger picture of unified communications is really focused on personalised productivity management, which includes links into calendars and speech recognition and also personalised call routing rules,” explains Cisco’s Nawaz.

Even analysts support the vision and uptake of unified communications: “In the future there will be demand for unified messaging and not only a unified mailbox, but a unified multimedia type of messaging,” states Previdi.

However, despite the resounding push from vendors to drive momentum towards unified communications, issues still remain within the local market about unified messaging and the advice surrounding the technology is clearly still one about learning to crawl before you can walk.

“Unified messaging is already evolving into unified communications, but this [Middle East] market has got to adopt UM before it can look at unified communications,” says Watson.||**||

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