By Darren Wesemann
This article will attempt to define future affects the Internet boom will have on the Voicemail and Telephone Answering service industries. Where is this industry being lead in light of the interesting evolution the Internet and its users are experiencing? When should we look for these changes? When should we prepare, and how?
What’s the Internet Anyway?: The Internet is many things to many people and is the next logical step in the evolution of computers and telephony. The Internet is the leading edge of a trend in which computers and computer networks around the world are linking together, resulting in one massive global and public network.
The market for Internet products and services, only three years old, is already approaching maturity. One particular segment of the Internet industry should be of grave interest to the typical Voicemail and Telephone Answering Service Company. This segment is known as the ISP, or Internet Service Provider.
ISPs are the companies that resell Internet access to others. Internet access comes in many flavors and offers other value-added services such as email, domain name services (DNS), security, and Web page hosting, to name a few.
Internet access is booming, but the market is fiercely competitive, dunking many Internet service providers in a sea of red ink. One result is consolidation, as some ISPs acquire a bigger market presence and more control of their operations, while other ISPs and networking companies are snapped up by cash-rich telecom companies offering voice and data services in one convenient package.
Meanwhile, other providers hope to survive by focusing on niches, many of them centered on corporate customers. More ISPs are trying to distinguish themselves by offering features such as Internet faxing and telephony, voicemail, and by hosting critical intranet applications.
These trends are good news for many corporate users looking for one-stop shopping. Not so good news for the typical voicemail service bureau.
All told, the number of ISPs in the United States, which had been rising in response to soaring demand, will drop from 4,500 today to about 500 in five years, according to Gartner Group Inc. Garner further predicts the U.S. ISP market will climb from $3.1 billion in 1996 to $13.3 billion by the year 2001.
For the Internet industry, the wild ride of the fast paced startup frenzy is over. Gone are the days when any hot new Internet business idea pulled in a pile of venture capital and resulted in an initial public offering whose price soared on the first day of trading. Now, barely two years after Netscape Communications’ vaunted IPO ignited the rise of Internet stocks into the stratosphere, the business world has cut through much of the Internet hype, and the industry is starting to more closely resemble an actual software business.
What does this mean to you?: The fact that the Internet industry is maturing is good news and bad news for the voicemail and telephone answering service providers. Internet services that can be used by our industry are more than likely to come to us already battle-tested by previous sales and installations. These are exciting new features that can be added to your portfolio of services, such as unifying all message types: voicemail, fax-mail and email, and connecting with other providers for regional or national coverage. However, the Internet industry itself provides special challenges to the typical voicemail and telephone answering service provider.
Challenge Number One: ISPs are becoming Internet Telephony Service Providers (ITSPs). This danger is that matured and aggressive Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are enhancing their standard services, (i.e. Internet access, email, news feeds, etc.), to include those of our industry, including voicemail, fax-mail, and answering services.
In order to compete with this development, we must be able to combine all messaging services into one complete unified setting. This process is known as Unified Messaging.
In addition, some ISPs are combining resources in different geographical or territorial markets in order to provide regional or national services.
Challenge Number Two: The Internet Evolution is the process whereby mature industries evolve into almost completely different businesses as a result of the explosive popularity of the Internet.
Take the Search and Retrieval software industry, for instance. Search and retrieval is the process allowing very large amounts of data to be searched and retrieved, accurately, and easily. It is an industry that is more than 20 years old. Yet, since the commercial Internet industry has proved its acceptance a mere three years ago, search and retrieval software companies have almost reinvented themselves to accommodate the change in information tide.
Herein is a lesson for our industry. Watch carefully how the Internet affects voicemail, fax-mail and telephone answering services. How will the ever-increasing acceptance and use of the Internet change these services? How can we take advantage of the Internet to better serve our marketplaces?
Unified Messaging: Business practices are changing. More companies are enabling a mobile work force than ever before. Years ago, many companies began implemented virtual office programs where certain employees accomplished their work from home. This increase in mobilization has created the need for unifying message types, namely email, voicemail and fax-mail. People, more than ever before, require access to any message type from anywhere and at any time.
Unified messaging involves integrating the various message types mentioned above into a single mailbox. This mailbox could be accessed in various ways. For example, the customer should be able to use an ordinary telephone to listen to email, voicemail and to obtain basic information regarding how many faxes have been received, and the sender’s phone number or identification number. Additionally, the customer should be able to reply to these messages using any other form of message type.
In short, unified messaging essentially converts various media types, and provides universal access to all messages, no matter where the user is or what type of device is available. The demand for this kind of service is expected to see a phenomenal increase.
Standard Messaging, VPIM: One of the most important benefits the Internet has to offer nearly any company is inexpensive transport. Many companies and institutions have been able to benefit from the Internet as a transport medium because there have been standards developed. Communication standards which allow disparate systems to communicate, enabling the transmission of information from one place to another. Up until now, the standards used on the Internet have been adjusted to fit the needs of text and graphical data, such as email, databases, and Web pages.
Development of a new communications protocol is underway. This new standard promises to allow users to integrate multi-vendor voice and fax mail systems using inexpensive, existing transport mechanisms.
Formally initiated last year from the Electronic Messaging Association (EMA), Voice Profile for Internet Mail (VPIM) represents the convergence of two important trends: the increasing acceptance of Internet-related protocols for messaging and user demand for the integration of various messaging media, such as voice, fax and text. The ultimate objective of VPIM is to let users take these various existing messaging systems and migrate them into a single, integrated network.
A VPIM message is comprised of one or more of these encoded parts. For example, a message might have a spoken subject, a spoken message and a fax. All of these would be encoded as separate parts.
As a public Internet standard, one of the most significant benefits of VPIM is that it allows voice messaging between dissimilar systems. This is not possible with proprietary protocols. With VPIM, the reach of voice messaging is extended further, bringing the capabilities of creating, replying and forwarding voice mail to a much larger audience.
Since multiple companies will use the standard, a broad range of messaging systems and users will be brought together. Vendors of voice and fax services will be able to combine their efforts to cover a larger geographical market, or simply to exchange messages for any other purpose. Deployment of VPIM is likely to be gradual, starting with upgrades to specific internal systems and voice mail networks, possibly via gateways.
An open directory service, such as the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP), would allow a voice message system to access the VPIM address of a person based on their telephone number.
End-user trials for this fall are now being prepared. Some of the trials will include intercompany deployments in which VPIM is used to tie disparate voice mail systems together.
For example, Octel systems in one division and Nortel or Lucent voice mail systems in another division. Other end-user trials will involve messaging between different companies. Some end users may try integrating desktop unified messaging systems with phone-oriented voice and f ax mail systems.
It is clear VPIM will increase the utility of messaging. Because VPIM systems can be added incrementally and interconnected over existing or separate networks, it is scalable and can be selectively deployed. Requests for proposals for Voice Messaging systems should ask for native VPIM support.
How do I prepare?: Of vital importance to preparing for the inevitable future changes is choosing products that will allow you to be dynamic in your proactive or reactive business endeavors. Choose carefully products that provide solid platforms for a growing and changing environment. Make absolute sure your vendors support, or pledge to support critical standards such as VPIM and LDAP. Determine, before you buy, if your vendor supplies a product dynamic enough to meet the ever-changing needs of your customers as well as future market places
Remember the words of Intel’s president, Andy Grove. His motto is “Only the paranoid survive,” and he ought to know what he’s talking about. Do you hear the footsteps of something running behind you, trying to catch up? It’s Internet ISPs, and others we can’t possibly predict at this time. But, they are coming.
Darren Wesemann is currently the vice president of Technology for International Voice Messaging Systems, Inc. and has a B.S. in Computer Science with numerous technical certifications.
[From Connection Magazine – July 1998]