Fax machines, voice mail, e-mail - the number of ways people can bombard you with electronic messages is growing fast, making it difficult to keep track of who sent what and to respond appropriately. The IT industry's answer is 'unified messaging', which puts everything into a single electronic mailbox, accessible in whatever form is most convenient. It uses technologies such as fax-to-e-mail, text-to-speech and speech-to-data.
Ovum, a London-based market research company, expects a huge demand for unified messaging. It estimates that the 200,000 mailboxes in use at the end of last year will soar to more than 95 million by 2003. David Bradshaw, an Ovum consultant, says it is particularly well-suited to people whose work is non-routine and unstructured.
'It allows people to work from desktop, car, hotel, home computer or even public payphone.'
At Tektronix, the US-based printer equipment manufacturer, globetrotting executives find it invaluable for keeping up with their work. 'It's not always easy to pick up your e-mail when you are travelling,' says David Hitt, a Tektronix voice analyst. 'But you can usually get to a phone.' Sending voice mails just as you would e-mails is useful. You record the message on your PC microphone, click the appropriate name in your on-screen address book and the message is sent automatically.
Enthusiasts admit the technology has some way to go, while detractors argue that to combine all forms of communication is like putting the wheat back with the chaff. They say having a variety of formats can help prioritise messages. Faxes are seen as urgent, while mobile phone numbers may be reserved for special contacts. 'People don't want to spend hours trawling through junk faxes or e-mails trying to spot whether there's anything important there,' says Nigel Downing, a partner at Berkshire-based Professional Skills Training. 'The human mind hates to be stuck with one method of communication even if the technology is wonderful.' Moreover, with everything in one mailbox you're more vulnerable if the system breaks down.
The technology is still young. Text-to-speech cannot yet make sense of common acronyms and jargon. 'More robust systems that can understand abbreviations and grammar are still needed,' says James Cox, marketing manager for multimedia messaging at Canadian telecoms company Nortel, which is developing unified messaging products. Fax-to-speech, which depends on first converting fax to text via optical character recognition, is also in the early stages.
Industry standards for unified messaging are undeveloped and some newer media such as voice and image are not yet included.
Crucially, software is needed that can better understand the content of messages, so that it can help sort and prioritise. Until this is available, secretaries will be preferable because they work more intelligently, says Tim Midwinter, multimedia networks manager, BT Network & Systems. 'A secretary can decide whether or not something is sufficiently important to disturb you.'
Ovum's Bradshaw agrees that without these sifting and filtering tools users will be in 'message hell'. But, he argues, unified messaging still imposes order on chaos, although 'it cannot make you into a model of self-discipline if you are hopelessly disorganised'.