Unified communications services, which integrate all manner of electronic and wireless messaging, are expected to take off in Asia next year as large network operators in Greater China help shape retail market opportunities. According to research firm International Data Corp (IDC), the entry of traditional telecommunications companies to the unified communications market will have a significant impact in driving user awareness in the region. 'Many unified communications services will be bundled with Internet access or other IP [Internet protocol] services,' said IDC analyst for communications research Renee Gamble. 'These are services that customers will increasingly expect from service providers. As companies increasingly engage with more remote workers, so will the demand for communications services that empower their mobility, flexibility and desire to balance business and personal communications increase.' IDC forecasts that the number of unified communications subscribers in the Asia-Pacific region, excluding Japan, will grow an average 88 per cent annually to 13.85 million in 2006 from about 320,000 last year. At the same time, average annual revenues from unified services are expected to hit 135 per cent a year and grow to US$198.70 million in 2006 from just US$1.19 million a year ago. Unified communications promise to change the way information is managed. A typical service provides a subscriber with an integrated mailbox that merges phone, e-mail and fax communications capabilities. This message store can be accessed via telephone, the Web or mobile communications devices. Value-added capabilities for call management are usually included, such as follow-me/find-me, calendar functions, address book integration, as well as real-time call-connect capabilities within an integrated platform. 'Much of the growth in this region will be driven by China and Australia, where the incumbent [telecoms firms] will shape both pricing and the market,' Ms Gamble said. 'We expect unified communications to start heating up in Hong Kong next year, when PCCW [Pacific Century CyberWorks] relaunches its existing offering in line with targeted consumer and corporate customers.' Late last year, CyberWorks unveiled the first of its planned range of unified communications services, U-Mail - an offering powered by technology from Comverse Network Systems. With a personalised U-Mail number, subscribers are able to access their unified mailbox - comprising e-mail, fax and voice messages - from their telephone handset, mobile phone or personal computer. In addition, through the latest text-to-speech technology, subscribers are able to listen to their English-language e-mail and reply by recording a message and sending it as a voice attachment. Ms Gamble expected CyberWorks to take the lead in unified communications in Hong Kong by changing subscribers' perception of the service from something that is free, such as basic unified messaging, to something that is worth paying for and bundled with services, such as voice-over Internet protocol. In recent years, several service providers have sprung up across Asia to offer free unified messaging services, in the hope of riding the wave of Internet hype. 'Many of these players have since either ceased operations or dramatically altered their business plans,' Ms Gamble said. Despite the previous hype about unified communications, telecoms companies have yet to deliver on the technology's promise. IDC said many service providers considered initiatives made this year as warm-up to determining a retail marketing proposition to grow demand for unified communications services in Asia.