by Sean Carton for Digital Living Today
Missing communications on any one of your growing list of personal communications devices can be a drag. Even though your pager, cell phone, desk phone, fax, and multiple email addresses give your associates oodles of options for keeping in touch, they also increase the number of cracks your communications can fall through.
Unified Messaging Systems (or UMS) are designed to channel all of this “bit spit” through one conduit. Once only affordable to those on big corporate expense accounts, many UMS are now free to anyone with Web access and too many gizmos trying to talk to them at once.
How does Unified Messaging work? Most systems combine voice recognition, fax imaging, and text-to-speech synthesis with a personal number that gives callers a single point of access. If someone wants to send you a fax, page you, or leave a message, all they have to do is call your number (or, in some cases, send you email) and the system takes care of the rest. It will contact you on any one of your comm devices and let you know you’ve got mail … or a call … or a fax …or… you get the idea.
Here is a run-down of some of the more popular UMS services.
Jfax.com combines fax and voicemail into one telephone number. Using your email system as a hub, Jfax routes fax and voicemail messages as attachments (faxes as image files, calls as audio files). Not bad, but you do have to have a computer to access them. The basic Jfax service is free, but for a few bucks, Jfax will even read your email to you over the phone (via text-to-speech software).
Onebox.com can help simplify your life by combining your fax, email, and voicemail into a single user account. This free service gives you an email address and a phone number, allowing you online or telephone access to all of your voicemail messages.
If you really want to go mobile with voice and email, check out myTalk.com, one of the most popular UMS on the Web. You can’t receive faxes, but you can access all of your email and voicemail messages on the phone or online, listening to your email over the phone or hearing your voicemail via the Web. Combine this with free 2-minute calls anywhere in the US, and you’ve got a killer app, at least for those people who don’t need fax capability.
If your business associates want to hear your voice, not a synthesized one that sounds like Stephen J. Hawking has taken a job as your personal secretary, Shoutmail has the answer. Not only can you get your mail read to you over the phone, but you can respond in your own voice and have your messages compressed into RealAudio format and emailed to your callers. Add to this beta support for email delivery through your cell phone, and you’ve got a system worth paying attention to.
One of our favorite systems is Roku. This free service works in concert with Microsoft Outlook to forward email messages (and meeting alerts) from your desktop computer to your cell phone, pager or laptop. The service also works with your calendar so that if you have a meeting scheduled in, say, Chicago next week, Roku will automatically offer you directions to the meeting, provide links to airplane reservations, good eats in the vicinity, etc. Forgot an important presentation back at the office? No problem. Roku’s interface displays your home file directories on your laptop so you can grab whatever you need when you need it.
UMS is still in its infancy and there are bugs to be hunted down and squashed, but having a sometimes-finicky system is better than not having one at all. Each service is slightly different than the others, so you’ll probably want to test drive several until you find one that fits your needs.