How Universal Messaging Works

By: Dave Roos
kim kardashian
With universal messaging, stars like Kim Kardashian can receive and send their voice and e-mail messages all on one device.
Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

Open up your wallet and take out one of your business cards. How many different ways can someone contact you? You have a business telephone number, a cell phone, a home phone number, a fax number and e-mail addresses, both for home and the office.

That's six different options for getting a hold of you. And that's not even including your instant messaging (IM) account, pager number and Skype number. You're like a walking phone book!


But does having all these different phone numbers and e-mail addresses make it easier to get in touch with you? It's impossible to be available on all those different devices and accounts at the same time. You'd have to never leave your desk, carry multiple cell phones and pagers with you at all times and be constantly logged onto various e-mail and IM accounts.

The reality is that with all these devices you spend a significant portion of your day dialing into all your voice-mail inboxes, checking assorted e-mail and IM accounts and walking over to the fax machine to see if there's a new arrival.

What if you could access all your messages -- voice, fax, e-mail and IM -- from one device? That's the idea behind universal messaging, also known as unified messaging. With universal messaging, you can read your e-mail, listen to voice mails and receive faxes and IMs all in one place. Even better, you can choose how you want to access those messages: through your computer, your telephone, or even a Web-enabled mobile device.

Not only can you receive messages in one place, but you can send them from any communication platform to any other communication platform. For example, with a universal-messaging system, you can send a fax from your e-mail account, an e-mail from your cell phone, or a text message from your IM client. Universal messaging removes the barriers that existed between different communications platforms, creating a truly unified solution for small and large companies, mobile workers and even home users [source: International Engineering Consortium].

But what are all the components of a universal-messaging system? Is it hard to set up and use? And who are some of the biggest service providers? Read on to find out.


The Components of Universal Messaging

mobile device
Universal-messaging systems turn voice-mail messages into text-to-speech so they can be read from mobile devices along with e-mail messages.
Phil Walter/Getty Images

In a typical office, there are separate technologies for sending and receiving different kinds of messages. If someone calls and leaves you a voice message, then you need to go to your phone to retrieve the message. If someone sends you an e-mail, you need to turn on your computer, log into your e-mail account and read the message. If someone sends you a fax, you need to go over to the machine and check if it's come through.

With universal messaging, all of those messages -- voice, e-mail, fax -- are collected on a central server. The server converts all messages into digital data; voice mail messages become digital audio files that can be attached to e-mails, and fax data is converted into a digital image file like a PDF. The digital information on the central server can then be accessed through several different methods:


  • With a simple software plug-in, you can configure an e-mail program like Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes to display not only e-mail messages, but voice mail and fax messages, too.
  • By logging onto a universal messaging Web site (through a computer or any Internet-ready device), you can access all e-mails, voice mails and faxes in one place.
  • Using any type of telephone, you can call into a universal-messaging system and listen to voice mails, listen to e-mails (using text-to-speech technology) and forward faxes to a nearby fax machine or alternate e-mail account.

A central concept of universal messaging is the idea of "your time" communications [source: International Engineering Consortium]. With universal messaging, you're no longer restricted to a certain location, schedule or communications platform. You have control over when you read and respond to messages, where you do it, and how you do it -- using your preferred communication platform, whether its e-mail, voice or fax.

Another central idea of universal messaging is notifications. Maybe you're a doctor, and it's important for you to receive messages quickly. With a universal-messaging system, you can set up notification rules. For example, if you're not logged into your e-mail account, but someone sends you an e-mail, the system can call your cell phone and read it to you. Or, maybe you want to receive a text message on your cell when someone leaves a voice mail on your home or work phones.

Text-to-speech and speech-recognition technology are two important components of universal-messaging systems. With text-to-speech, you can pick up your phone and have your e-mails read to you by an automated voice. And with speech recognition, you can navigate through your universal-messaging inbox using simple voice commands instead of pressing numbers on a keypad.

Now let's look at specific examples of the convenience of universal-messaging systems.


The Convenience of Universal Messaging

mit romney
With universal-messaging services, candidates like Mit Romney can receive their messages even while they're on the campaign trail.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The best example of the convenience of universal messaging is the e-mail interface. By this point, all office workers are familiar with using e-mail. We understand that messages come in chronological order, are listed with the sender's name and subject and that we have the option to read, respond to or forward them to other people.

But what happens when that same e-mail interface is expanded to include voice-mail messages and faxes? Interesting things start to happen. We stop thinking about voice mail as a one-way street. Instead of being disposable audio messages that are quickly deleted, we can treat them more like e-mail. With a universal-messaging system, you can send back a recorded audio response to someone's voice-mail message. You can forward the voice mail to a colleague or group of colleagues. Or, you can respond to the voice mail with an e-mail, IM or fax. All from the same interface.


All universal-messaging systems are slightly different, but most of them integrate with the most popular office e-mail clients: Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Notes. In these e-mail programs, different types of messages are indicated with different icons, perhaps an envelope for e-mail and a telephone receiver for voice mail. When you open up one of these messages, you'll see new buttons allowing you to record an audio message, attach a fax to the message, check if that user is available on IM, or initiate a phone call with that user from your PC.

For added convenience, all of the universal-messaging functionality can be accessed through any Web browser anywhere in the world. Most universal-messaging systems include a Web site that a subscriber can access with a username and password. So even if you're on vacation sitting at an Internet café in Thailand, you can access and respond to voice mails, e-mails and faxes.

Universal-messaging systems are also useful for an increasingly mobile and global workforce. With features like "follow me" call forwarding, you can program a messaging system to route calls to your cell phone when you're not at your desk. Or, in the case of an urgent message, you can program the system to try multiple phone numbers and communications platforms until receipt of the message is confirmed.

For corporate customers, universal-messaging systems are especially convenient because they allow easy compliance with regulations like the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Born out of high-profile corporate accounting scandals, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act requires that companies archive all communications and messages related to their financial transactions for seven years [source: GFI]. With a universal-messaging system, all voice and fax data is digitized and can be saved on the server alongside e-mails.

Now let's look at some universal-messaging service providers and how to get started with a unified messaging system.


How to Get Started with Universal Messaging

sales call
Universal-messaging systems allow business professionals to receive their e-mail and voice messages even when they're making sales calls.
Photographer: Chlorophylle | Agency: Dreamstime

There are two basic kinds of universal-messaging services: subscription and in-house. The subscription model is geared toward small businesses and individual consumers who don't have the budget to invest in the server hardware and software to run their own universal-messaging systems. The in-house solution is for larger companies and organizations with the money and existing information technology (IT) infrastructure to run the servers on their own.

For an example of the subscription model, let's look at a company called Messagepoint. To use Messagepoint, you don't need to install any new hardware or software on your computer or your corporate network. All universal-messaging features are managed through a Web browser.


When you sign up for Messagepoint, you're assigned a local phone number for receiving voice calls and faxes. You'll also be given a special e-mail address. If you already have an established telephone number that you don't want to change, you can have the telephone company forward your calls and faxes to this new number. The same goes for e-mail. You can use the Post Office Protocol-version 3 (POP3) setting on your e-mail client to receive messages from multiple accounts.

The nice part about the Messagepoint system is that you're not stuck with one Messagepoint phone number. You can program the system to "follow" you or "find" you on any telephone number in the world.

Messagepoint charges $20 a month for their premium service and $30 a month for their business service. Premium services include standard universal-messaging features like fax to e-mail, e-mail over the phone and voice mail to e-mail. Business services include features like "follow me" and "find me" call routing and text-message notifications.

The Nortel CallPilot system is an example of an in-house universal-messaging solution. To use the system, you'll need to buy the CallPilot server that runs independently of your existing e-mail and Web servers. The advantage of an in-house solution like CallPilot is that it doesn't require any changes to your existing e-mail server. It also doesn't require additional software.

CallPilot integrates with popular e-mail clients via a simple software plug-in. Users can access its messaging features through the e-mail client, through a Web interface or through any phone. Over the phone, CallPilot allows you to navigate the system using voice commands and can read back e-mails using text-to-speech. System administrators can manage the system and issue reports using any Web browser, inside or outside of the local area network.

CallPilot is available in several sizes, depending on the organization's size and messaging needs. On the low end is the CallPilot Mini which only allows for 200 total users. On the high end is the CallPilot 1005R which maxes out at 50,000 users. Nortel doesn't list prices on its Web site, since prices vary depending on the client's specific messaging needs.

We hope this has been a useful introduction to the world of universal messaging.

For lots more information about universal messaging and related topics, check out the links on the next page.