May 10, 2009

Are We Getting Any Closer To Unified Messaging

The Holy Grail in communications has always been the drive to unify our messaging (data, voice, video) into a single device.

To this day, we continue to see vendors developing consumer products that combine as many of these functions as will possibly fit on a device.

For example, with the traditional copy machine, we have migrated to “all in one” devices that have copy, fax, scan, and print features. At the same time, cell phones have morphed into Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), and have brought together traditional voice telephony with email, chat, web access, GPS, photos, videos, and an almost endless array of applets.  Similarly, computers are converging communications functions for email, voice over IP, photos, videos, social networking, and much more. While televisions are merging in features for web access, movies on demand, and so forth. 

Convergence is the name of the game--the consumer wants more functionality, more communications capability, more raw computing power, in single, smaller, and sleeker devices.

Ultimately, the vision for mobile communications was first epitomized by the Star Trek’s Communicator with universal language translation and later by the communications badge that with one tap put you in touch with Scotty who could beam you up to the Enterprise in a flash.

So with all the convergence in our communications gear, are we getting any closer to bona fide unified messaging systems?

I don’t know about you, but rather than less communications devices, it seems like I have more and more to fiddle and diddle with. At least two cell phones that balance on opposite sides of my belt (one is my personal phone and the other my work device) and I still have regular landlines at both home and work. Then there is my work computer and my home computer and remote access devices like air cards, tokens, and so forth. Of course, I have Skype, numerous email accounts, FaceBook, Twitter, Blogs, digital cameras, and various printing/copy/faxing/scanning devices to choose from. With various devices in just about every nook and cranny of my work and personal space, I’d say that my ability to community is certainly extensive, but unified, simple, user-centric—I don’t think so!

Government Computer News, 4 May 2009, reports: “Like the paperless office, unified messaging—storing and accessing various types of communications, from e-mail to voice mails, faxes and videos, in a single place—has been something of a chimera.”

With unified messaging, like the Holy Grail, it seems like the more we chase it, the more elusive it becomes.


Perhaps, we have a little bit of Moore’s Law running up against Murphy’s Law here. While the capability for us to do more computationally and functionally with ever smaller devices become greater and greater, the possibility of getting it all to work “right” becomes a greater and greater challenge. Maybe there are limits to how many functions a person can easily understand, access and conveniently control from a single device.

Think for a second about the infamous universal TV remote that has become the scorn of late night comedy. How many people get frustrated with these devices—all the buttons, functions, alt-functions, and so on that no reasonable person seems to care to learn. Or think about the 2 inch think operating instruction booklet that comes with the DVD player or other electronic devices that people are scared to even break the binding on. Then there are the PDA’s with touch screen keypads that you see people fat-fingering and getting the words all wrong. The list goes on and on.

Obviously, this is not user-centric architecture and it doesn’t work, period.

The consumer product company that gets “it”—that can design communications devices for the end-user that are functional and powerful with lots of capability and as close to unified as possible, but at the same time simple, compact, convenient, and easy to use (i.e. intuitive) will crack this unified messaging nut.

We cannot sacrifice ease of use for convergence!

Apple and RIM, in my experience, have probably come closest to this than any other consumer electronic companies, but even here it is a magnificent work-in-progress unfolding before our eyes.

I, for one, can’t wait for the Star Trek communications badge to become commercially available at the local Apple store. 


No comments: