Active Voice’s Unity ~ In Pursuit of the Perfect Unified Messaging Solution

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Active Voice's Unity ~ In Pursuit of the Perfect Unified Messaging Solution
P. Hayes - June 13, 2000

Product Background

Robert Richmond, Robert Greco, and Christopher Schmandt founded Active Voice in 1983 with a common goal in mind — to develop software that enables centralized electronic communication. Throughout the past seventeen years, Active Voice has enjoyed considerable growth and success developing Unified Messaging solutions for major collaborative messaging servers such as Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes.

Active Voice has recently gained much attention in the messaging arena with "Best of Show" awards from Microsoft and Lotus conferences, in addition to beating out AVT Corporation, Lucent and Key Voice in a Computer Telephony test. Active Voice's financials are more than respectable with a recent stock price of $7.75 USD (7/6/00) and an EPS of 0.57 (USD). While we don't expect any of the Unified Messaging vendors to monopolize the market place, we do believe that Active Voice is well positioned to take a commanding piece of the pie due not only to product functionality but also due to product cost.

Product Strategy and Trajectory

Active Voice's Unity is a Microsoft Back Office based product that integrates with Microsoft Exchange to enable a central point from which a user can access and send not only e-mail, but also voice mail and facsimile. A user can access his or her e-mail and voice mail from either a telephone (God forbid its not a touch tone!) or the Internet when not at his or her workstation.

Most Unified Messaging systems look and feel pretty much the same, so what, we wondered, is that what makes Unity a better choice? We found that native streaming media and signaling architecture supports multiple circuits and/or IP switches simultaneously, allowing a client to migrate to IP telephony while reducing associated costs. We also found the product to be highly developable due to its industry standard support for XML.

However, one of the key points to Unity is the concept and implementation of a 'Single Directory and Single Store'. This allows for 'true' Unified Messaging for Microsoft Exchange (Single Directory and Single Store for Lotus will be available prior to the 4th Quarter of 2000). A single directory and store become 'unified' with the base messaging system allowing complete and thorough interoperability.

Unity is based on Internet standards that allow the product to grow with the organization as more technically advanced products are implemented. We have already mentioned support for XML, but Unity also has support for LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) in addition to IP telephony, which is the direction of corporate communications looking into the next decade. Due to Active Voice's support for IP Telephony, Cisco Systems has selected Unity to be integrated into Cisco's CallManager application to facilitate communication improvements while reducing hardware related costs.

Another component, which we found rather nifty, was support for multiple languages, which can also be accessed via the Internet, a touch-tone phone or the user's desktop. Simply put, by adding support for multiple languages Active Voice has globalized their enterprise ready product offering.

Product Strengths

  • Support for Industry Standards: Unity supports XML, LDAP, and IP Telephony.

  • Single Directory and Single Store: Unity ties the Exchange Directory and Store allowing complete integration.

  • Support for Multiple Circuit or IP Switches Simultaneously: Offers a tremendous hardware cost savings to the client. There is no need to purchase additional hardware to 'tie' your telephony system(s) together.

  • Scalability: The Unity product scales well. The product could easily be used in an office of less than 100 users or scale to 100,000 users with relative ease.

  • Globalization: Supports multiple languages and/or a mix of multiple languages.

  • Administrative Interface: The administrative 'console' is intuitive, easily navigable and well thought out. Those already familiar with the Exchange Administrative interface and standard windows Graphical User Interface (GUI) will require minimal training.

  • Installation and Configuration: Due to Unity's tight integration with Microsoft Back Office, coupled with well thought out and scripted install screens and import utilities, rollout is relatively painless. As with any rollout, plan in stages to minimize potential problems.

Product Challenges

  • Deploying Unity 2.3 in organizations with one Exchange site and multiple physical office locations. The challenge here is that you can only deploy one Unity 2.3 for each Exchange site, even though some organizations have several physical locations or branch offices that are all part of (or linked to) the same (one) Exchange site. Therefore with 2.3 only the (one) physical Exchange site could use Unity 2.3's unified messaging capabilities. In Unity 2.4, due for release later in July 2000, Active Voice has overcome this challenge. Each location will have the ability to have a Unity deployed, providing full UM functionality, even if they are all part of the same (one) Exchange site. The number of users can scale up to approximately 10,000 users per Exchange system. In Unity 2.4, multiple Unity servers within one Exchange site will ease enterprise deployments considerably.

  • Unity must be able to interoperate on a single directory, single store procedure in order to achieve 'true' unified messaging for the Lotus Notes Domino R5 server.

  • Active Voice must spend more revenue on promoting 'Unity' as a complete Unified Messaging Solution in order to increase the Unity install base.

  • As with all Unified Messaging products, the text to speech recognition engine is rather monotone, slow and not without the occasional mistake. This technology will improve over time but more R&D dollars must be put towards it.


Vendor Recommendations

At the present time Active Voice is doing a good job in development and sales, paying strong attention to customer service. If we had one main recommendation it would be to provide for the release of a single directory, single store application for Lotus Domino. Furthermore Active Voice must look to the release of Exchange Server 2000 and be certain it is 100% compliant with the Active Directory Service (ADS). Simply put, " Nice Job so far, but don't rest on your current laurel's."

User Recommendations

Users have a lot of choices when it comes to Unified Messaging. The largest three players are Lucent Technologies, Active Voice, AVT Corporation and peripherally, Key Voice. All products have their pros and cons, but Active Voice's commitment to industry standards coupled with strong functionality and ease of use makes us put it on our short list of Unified Messaging Vendors. Make certain to include Active Voice in your tests prior to implementing any Unified Messaging product.

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