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.