Access voicemail and email from one user interface

Companies that want to stay on top of the latest communications technologies might be interested in Octel Unified Messenger from Lucent Technologies. Octel Unified Messenger lets you retrieve and reply to both email and voicemail through one interface. The software works with existing PBX systems to route voicemail and email through Microsoft Exchange (including Exchange 5.5). You can access and reply to voicemail and email messages through a telephone handset, Exchange, or Microsoft Outlook.

Configuring the System
As of December 1997, Octel Unified Messenger worked with 14 different PBX configurations, including models from AT&T, Harris, Intecom, Lucent, Mitel, Northern Telecom (Nortel), ROLM, and Toshiba. The configurations this software supports cover more than 90 percent of the PBX market. You run the software on a Windows NT server. In small installations, you can use the same server for the Octel Unified Messenger server and the Exchange server.

I don't recommend installing this product yourself unless you are familiar with PBX phone system installations and configurations. If you decide to install and configure the product your-self, prepare to spend at least a day with your server and the Octel Unified Messenger manual; the installation is an arduous task.

After you set up the base system, you must configure Octel Unified Messenger for your environment. You use the Telephone User Interface Voice Mail Domain menu to configure your voicemail system and Octel Unified Messenger's text-to-speech conversion mechanism. This configuration module lets you customize aspects of your environment from the number of digits in mailbox extensions to the duration of calls. The Telephone User Interface also lets you set the initial password for first-time users to random, default, or none.

You must also configure the Auto Attendant, another key module of Octel Unified Messenger. The Auto Attendant is the audio interface that lets incoming callers find the telephone extension they need by pressing keys on their telephone keypad. Screen 1 shows the Attendant Main Menu Editor. Administrators can assign one of four Auto Attendant responses to each of the numbers 1 through 9. (The Auto Attendant reserves 0 for its Main Menu prompt.) When callers select a number from their telephone keypad, the Auto Attendant will transfer them to a user's mailbox or play one of three messages: a message that the administrator records, a message that tells callers their selection is invalid, or a directory of additional choices.

Next, add a mailbox for each subscriber. First, you add the mailboxes to Exchange by selecting New Mailbox from the File menu in the Exchange Administrator interface. Exchange will then request information about the new mailbox subscriber. After providing the necessary subscriber information, you assign an account status (e.g., administrator or guest) to the new mailbox and click OK or Apply. The new mailbox will appear in the right panel of the Exchange Administrator interface. Double-click the new mailbox, and when the configuration interface opens, select Voice Mail from the available attribute tabs.

Select the Enable Voice Mail check box on the Voice Mail tab. A password for the new mailbox will pop up--write it down. Then enter the mailbox number and extension you want to assign to the new subscriber. (You'll probably want to make the mailbox number and the extension number identical for most users.) Assign a unique identifying number to the mailbox and click OK to apply the changes to the new mailbox. Wait 10 minutes for Exchange and Octel Unified Messenger to synchronize or restart Octel Unified Messenger, and the new mailbox will be ready for configuration.

Octel Unified Messenger
Contact: Lucent Technologies * 408-321-2000
Web: http://www.lucent.com/octel
Price: $20,000 for 100 seats
System Requirements: Server: 133MHz Pentium, 48MB of RAM, CD-ROM drive for software installation, Windows NT Server 4.0 with Service Pack 2 (SP2) or later, Microsoft Exchange Client 4.0 with SP2 or later, Rhetorex VPS4 or VPS4i voice card, Rhetorex Installation Suite, 1GB of hard disk space, Client: 66MHz 486 processor or better, 16MB of RAM for Windows NT systems (8MB of RAM for Windows 95), Microsoft Exchange Client 4.0 with SP2 or later or Microsoft Outlook Client

Testing the Messenger
The Windows NT Magazine Lab tested Octel Unified Messenger using Outlook as the user interface. (Configuring a new mailbox through the default Exchange client is very similar.) When you open Outlook after creating a new mailbox, select New when Outlook asks you for a profile name. Next, select the check boxes that correspond to the information services your new subscriber will use--Exchange Server, Microsoft Mail, or Internet Mail--and enter a profile name for the new mailbox. Outlook will request the location of the subscriber's personal address book. Enter the location, then exit the profile screen. Outlook's logon screen will show your new mailbox profile.

When you have set up your users' profiles, they can fine-tune their mailbox's configuration by selecting Voice Mail Options from Outlook's Tools menu. Users can choose whether to play and record voicemail and email from their telephone handsets or through their workstation's multimedia programs. They can change their passwords and select whether to receive urgent messages first, most recent messages first, or most recent messages last when they access the system through a telephone handset. Finally, Octel Unified Messenger prompts users to record their voicemail greetings through either a telephone handset or a microphone (if their workstation has a sound card). Users are set to go after they've recorded these greetings.

Octel Unified Messenger's features are very similar to the corresponding features in Outlook and popular voicemail products, yet this product is nothing like the products you now use. Think of Octel Unified Messenger as the junction between the email and voicemail worlds. You can retrieve voicemail through Outlook and retrieve email messages by dialing in to the voicemail interface.

I found Octel Unified Messenger's text-to-speech conversion capability to be the program's most enticing feature. Users can retrieve both voicemail and email messages by calling in to the Octel Unified Messenger system through a telephone handset or by playing the messages on a multimedia computer. Message recipients who do not use Octel Unified Messenger can listen to messages through a multimedia computer by installing the Octel Audio Compression Manager (free for download from http://www.octel.com/unified.messenger/acm.html).

When you call in to a mailbox that contains both voicemail and email, Octel Unified Messenger tells you how many voicemail and email messages you have and asks which type of message you want to review first. When you review email messages, the software notifies you of the message's priority and lets you know whether the message contains any attachments. After the software reads the content of the message to you, you can use your telephone keypad to save, delete, replay, forward, or reply to the message. If you choose to reply to the message, you can record a new message. Octel Unified Messenger will send your reply as a compressed voice file attached to an email. Screen 2 shows Octel Unified Messenger's message creation process. (Octel Unified Messenger automatically adds three icons to the right side of the Outlook toolbar: New Voice Message, Reply to Sender with Voice, and Reply to All with Voice. The software offers these icons for Exchange, but users must add them to the toolbar using the Customize Toolbar option on the Tools menu.)

Deciphering the computer-generated voice that reads email messages takes some practice, but the system works, and listening to email is fun. Converting text to speech is a CPU-intensive task, so Octel Unified Messenger limits the system to a maximum of 12 simultaneous text-to-speech conversions. Through proprietary compression algorithms, the program converts text to speech at a rate of roughly 1 second of conversion time per 10 seconds of speech (e.g., the software takes 6 seconds to convert email text into a 60-second spoken message).

The frequency with which your staff performs text-to-speech conversions affects the capacity of your system. Octel Unified Messenger can use up to six Rhetorex ISA PC voice cards in the voice server. Each Rhetorex card can have up to four ports, and each port can support 30 users to 50 users, depending on each user's level of activity. Thus, Octel Unified Messenger can handle between 720 users and 1200 users from one server.

Lucent plans to add fax capabilities to the Octel Unified Messenger system. This addition will make the product a more comprehensive messaging solution. This product is difficult to dislike, especially because of its seamless integration with Outlook and Exchange. Still, Octel Unified Messenger is just the first in an array of new telephony offerings for the NT platform. If this product is any indication of the software to come, we're in for a treat.