Why Unified Messaging Matters
The impact of unified messaging extends well beyond voice mail and the e-mail Inbox.
When someone talks about "messaging," you probably think of instant messaging or texting -- those two highly popular forms of communications that have grown tremendously in the past few years. But unified messaging is far more critical -- key, in fact -- to a comprehensive unified communications strategy than most realize.
This may surprise you. After all, you'll find many more posts and passionate debates about things like premises vs. cloud and softphones vs. hard phones than you will about the significance of unified messaging. But significant it is.
In Defense of Voice Mail
Any consideration of unified messaging's importance has to start with a look at one of its core components, voice mail -- which does get its fair share of knocks. In a recent No Jitter post, for example, industry watcher Andrew Prokop opined that voice mail should disappear. "We live in a world where speed is of the essence, and our eyes grasp words on a screen far faster than our ears can listen to the same thing. ...Text is actionable, voice mail is not," he wrote.
While voice mail may have originated in the 1980s, it's still prevalent today. Virtually every telephone service provider (residential, business and cellular) offers voice mail and/or unified messaging, after all -- and with good reason. The technology is more useful than many care to admit. For one, it singlehandedly killed the busy signal, something that most millennials have never even ever heard. It also managed to wipe out the answering machine business -- not to mention those "While You Were Out" pink message pads.
While text-based messaging may be more "actionable," it isn't always an option. We can no longer dictate how others must communicate. UC provides choice and empowerment -- for receivers and initiators.
The truth is that we are less infatuated with text than we are with self-service empowerment. We don't tolerate ring-no answer or, even worse, an incompetent stranger offering, "Maybe I can help?" Today we rely on outgoing greetings to convey key messages and on interactive voice response systems (IVR) to provide all kinds of information. Failure, such as the Oct. 14 crash of Maryland's voice mail system, can be extremely frustrating. The failure wreaked havoc with the state's automated attendants and agency workloads.
We expect voice mail to work, more so than we do e-mail. We cringe when the greeting says, "Mailbox is full." Voice messaging is a basic tenet of the Phone Bill of Rights, regardless of whether or not the caller chooses to exercise it.
The Role of Speech Recognition
Initially, unified messaging was about being able to access voice messages in your e-mail Inbox. And while that's nice, unified messaging can do more. If text is more actionable, than the obvious next step is to convert voice messages to text using speech recognition and transcription. The technology remains far from perfect as speakers vary, but it is usually good enough to ascertain topic and priority.
Speech as an interface is becoming much better and increasingly popular. Google recently concluded that 55% of teens between the ages of 13 and 18 use voice search daily. Apple's Siri, although just two years old, has changed the world -- at least in expectations -- and ongoing breakthroughs in neural network algorithms continue to advance speech recognition technology.
New applications are pushing speech recognition into daily applications. Amazon just launched Echo, a personal assistant appliance. Microsoft is testing Skype Translator, which can perform simultaneous, near real-time translations between languages. And Google recently announced that Android apps can now utilize embedded Google voice search functionality.
In the enterprise, the unified messaging platform generally houses the speech recognition capabilities. Personal assistant applications are emerging on several platforms. AVST's Atom, for example, combines speech, messaging, location, and calendaring to enable call prioritization, screening, routing and alerting. Atom can route calls based on a user's location, perform tasks such as "Call Eric Krapf," and interact with callers to screen the call from the intended recipient, recommend a meeting time based on availability, or even take a message.
Unified messaging continues to get more robust. Last month, AVST previewed a list of new features for its CX-E platform, for example. The list, which is surprisingly long for such a "mature" technology, corroborates how broad messaging has become. Among the new features I count eight reasons why unified messaging continues to be key to an enterprise UC strategy.
- Interoperability: The CX-E is a Rosetta stone of UC, integrating natively with every major vendor's UC platform.
- Centralized messaging: An organization with multiple voice technologies can still centralize its messaging solution. It is even possible to centralize messaging with a combination of premises-based calling platforms, PBXs, and hosted options.
- Use with Microsoft Lync: The CX-E can even be combined with Microsoft Lync, which until now has been restricted to Exchange for unified messaging. This will undoubtedly expand Lync's suitability as a voice platform into enterprises with specialized requirements such as granular permission and retention controls.
- Compliance: Features such as granular permission and retention controls can be critical in compliance matters.
- Security and control: Going beyond compliance, many organizations want to leverage the benefits of cloud-delivered services, but require on-premises retention. The CX-E enables this.
- Hybrid cloud model: The CX-E uses a cloud-premises hybrid deployment that combines call processing services with on-site message storage.
- Call center support: Most intriguing about AVST's upcoming release is TeamQ, an informal call center. TeamQ not only can distribute, via push technology, calls based on various criteria, but also enables team members to pull calls in. TeamQ combines its speech and IVR capabilities to collect information, which it then displays. Team members are in control with TeamQ. They see this information in a visible queue, and select calls--a new twist on skills-based routing.
- Self-service: The updates collectively empower users with a host of self-service options. This includes advanced IVR capabilities with integrations into major applications and databases; more ways to interact, including via speech; and intelligent options around location and calendaring.
As the CX-E example shows, modern unified messaging has come a long way. Don't make the mistake of labeling it as just voice mail. Voice is the most basic form of communication, and in a retro sort of way it's becoming cool again.
In You're Wrong About Voicemail, Gizmodo writer Leslie Horn shares how listening to voice mails left by friends and family after the unexpected death of her dad meant so much. "I didn't listen to them immediately. But they were there as a de facto comfort when I needed some. ... Sometimes, it's just good to hear someone's voice. Email is great, texting is fine, but it takes effort to pick up the phone."