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Three's Not a Crowd for 'Universal In-Boxes'

September 08, 1997|KAREN KAPLAN

In the beginning, voicemail was a great convenience. No longer was it necessary to rely on abbreviated, hand-scrawled messages that had an amazing tendency to get lost. Fax machines, meanwhile, dramatically shortened the time required to deliver important documents. Then electronic mail rode into town with the promise of inexpensive, instantaneous communication from desktop to desktop anywhere in the world.

Alas, these communications innovations have lost their high-tech luster. Checking voicemail, sifting through faxes and logging on for e-mail have become daily chores on a par with plowing through snail mail.

That could change with new software solutions that create a "universal in-box," where all three kinds of messages can be retrieved via phone or PC.

"You have to go to your PC to get e-mails, to your fax machine to get faxes and to your voicemail or answering machine to check voice messages," said Dennis Bordelon, product manager for InfoMail Express, an offering from Digital Sound Corp. of Carpinteria. "We see a real productivity factor from the ability to get all of these messages from one place at one time from anywhere."

Much of the new systems' core computer telephony technology comes from large corporate systems that have developed over the last several years.

One of the veterans in the field is Active Voice Corp. of Seattle (, which was founded in 1983 to build on technology developed at MIT's Media Laboratory. Active Voice created sophisticated voicemail systems for businesses, and in 1992 the company started integrating faxes and voicemail with its TeLANophy system, said product marketing manager Marlowe Fenne. E-mail was added to the mix in 1995, and a typical TeLANophy system can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

A handful of upstart firms, like Digital Sound (, are planning to join Active Voice in this new market with products aimed at individuals and small businesses for a fraction of the cost. Most of these systems allow users to log in to a Web site to access their panoply of messages. E-mails look like standard e-mails, faxes show up as digital pictures, and voice messages are played on the PC's hard drive as sound files.

Once messages are downloaded, they can be filed and stored in a computer database. Messages of all types can be forwarded to others as e-mail or as e-mail attachments. Faxes and e-mails can also be forwarded to fax machines.

Aside from the convenience of a single in-box, these inexpensive services are handy because they can be accessed from any place with Internet access, said Kevin Torf, president of Manhattan Beach-based Tornado Software Development (, which is introducing its Tornado Electronic Messaging Service, or TEMS, this month.

Some of the new systems also allow users to access many--if not most--of their messages by phone. Some products, like Orchestrate from Atlanta-based Premiere Technologies Inc. (, TeLANophy and TEMS, use text-to-speech processing programs to have computers read e-mail messages over the phone as well.

The Personal Communications Attendant, or PCA, from Concierge Inc. of Los Angeles (, relies on the power of a PC but is designed for users to retrieve messages by phone instead of via a Web site using text-to-speech programs. PCA also uses optical-character-recognition software to convert faxes into text files so computers can read them over the phone as well, said Allen Kahn, co-chairman and chief executive of Concierge.

Most of the systems come with an e-mail account and a toll-free number that accepts voice messages and faxes. Pricing plans vary: Orchestrate went on the market in July with a $4.95 monthly base rate plus 15 cents per minute for time spent leaving and retrieving messages by phone. Tornado's TEMS goes for $10 a month, plus a $15 setup fee. Concierge's PCA will go on the market in late September with a $199.95 price tag.

Digital Sound is marketing InfoMail Express to phone companies, which will customize it and resell it to their customers. GTE Corp. is launching a test of the product, which it calls Unified Messaging, to 400 customers in Dallas/Fort Worth and Tampa, Fla., this month. The product could be available in California in 1998, said Ed Heberlein, GTE's manager for unified messaging.

Karen Kaplan covers telecommunications, technology and aerospace. She can be reached at

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