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We face an ever-increasing flow of electronic information. Depending on what business you're in, you probably receive the heaviest flow of information to your email Inbox, with voicemail coming in second, pager messages a possible third, and faxes lingering in the background.

With such a variety of message types, it's common to favor a particular means of communication and pay less attention to the other types. However, your customers expect a prompt response from you whether they have contacted you by email, telephone, pager, or fax. The unified messaging products in this Buyer's Guide can't reduce the volume of messages you receive but can bring all your messages into a single store and give you full-time access to them.

Unified messaging is a hot topic these days. All the options each solution offers can be confusing, and the rapid changes in unified messaging technology can add to your confusion. You should clearly define your immediate and long-term needs before you start shopping for a solution.

The unified messaging products in this Buyer's Guide aren't hosted unified messaging services but solutions that you implement inhouse. Depending on your current needs and infrastructure, implementing a unified messaging solution is complex and expensive. For example, some products can integrate with your existing voicemail system, whereas others work only with their own voicemail solution. Most unified messaging solutions can integrate with a variety of phone switches. You have a range of options to choose from. Make sure to verify that the vendor fully supports your existing equipment and that the product is scalable according to your needs.

Consider also how the solution would support your current messaging platform and OSs. Most products support both Microsoft Exchange Server and Lotus Notes and run on Windows 2000, Windows NT, and UNIX systems. Differences between the listed products include their ability to take advantage of the Microsoft Web Telephony Engine and the ability to use the telephony and speech APIs that come with Win2K. By using these latest APIs, unified messaging products can integrate Web-based features such as customer-initiated Web chat to let you correspond directly to customers.

Most of the listed unified messaging products provide a text-to-speech engine that can read your email messages to you over the telephone. These engines synthesize sound in different ways, and the voices can range from robotic to almost human sounding. For your faxing needs, several vendors offer optical character recognition (OCR) technology to translate faxes to email that a text-to-speech engine can then read to you. For pagers, some vendors offer notification alerts that let you know what incoming messages you have. For urgent messages, you can select parameters to define when and how to notify you through the pager. Because wireless access is becoming more important, some vendors let you access the single-store mailbox by using a Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) device.

Regardless of what solution you choose, you should expect 24 x 7 access to your messages through a telephone, Web browser, or standard mail client. Ultimately, a unified messaging solution should help improve response times to your customers and ease the burden of managing your messages.