The number of electronic in-boxes that can handle all types of messages, whether voice, e-mail or fax, will grow drastically in the coming years from 35,000 last year to 25.4 million by 2003, according to market research published last week by International Data Corp.
The boost in so-called unified messaging is currently driven more by competition among service providers than by demand, according to Jeannette Noyes, research manager at IDC.
However, demand is rising, with "road warriors" performing their jobs away from the office, as well as those working at home, among the early adopters, Noyes said.
For IDC, the term "unified messaging" only applies to scenarios where the user can retrieve messages through a phone and through a Web-connected PC.
The IDC research concentrates on messaging offered by external companies such as Internet service providers, wireless carriers and local exchange carriers. Many of them will buy the service prepackaged from wholesalers like GTE Internetworking and resell it, thereby saving time to market, Noyes said.
IDC expects that end-user revenues earned will increase from $US7.6 million in 1998 to $1.9 billion by 2003. However, there will still be free unified messaging around in 2003, just as today there are 50 million users of free e-mail, Noyes said.
Currently there are several offers of free unified messaging services, Compaq being the most recent to offer it though its partner TelePost. This year 30 per cent of all unified message in-boxes will be free, decreasing to 15 per cent in 2003, according to IDC.
"But another 25 per cent will be users of free service paying for enhanced service," Noyes said. The free service is the bait, providing customers with the basics but enticing them to upgrade to a higher level of service.
The big advantage with unified messaging is getting all types of messages on one screen, so it is easier to prioritise, especially voice mails, according to Noyes; one can see at a glance who has phoned, rather than having to listen serially to all the messages on a voice-mail system.
One disadvantage may be that some people tend to check their e-mail frequently as a procrastinating device, and they will have even more to distract them with unified messaging. "The problem is known, but people will have to manage the distraction," said Noyes.
Consumers seems to be interested in retrieving messages from one central place. Almost 24 per cent of households said they were very interested or interested in unified messaging.