PCCW's centralised system will mean savings for companies PCCW last week introduced a unified messaging service that enables businesses to combine voice and data messaging capabilities in one centralised view using Microsoft Outlook. The service lets people check their e-mail, voice mail and faxes from a PC, mobile phone or other device via PCCW's IP network rather than using telephone or public switched telephone networks (PSTN). It will help companies lower costs by centralising the management of telephone and e-mail messaging. The company launched a similar unified messaging service for consumers in 2000, using technology from an internet telephony technology provider, Comverse Networks Systems, called U-Mail. But a PCCW spokesperson said the converged offering differed from U-Mail as the features were more sophisticated, riding on the company's new IP network. U-Mail is a consumer service while PCCW Convergence is aimed at businesses. The firm would not disclose the number of U-Mail subscribers. PCCW's gradual move from a traditional PSTN system to a converged IP-based network will enable it to offer more varied multimedia services through the network in future such as video conferencing. At the press launch, PCCW chief operating officer Mike Butcher said convergence was an evolutionary, worldwide trend with more and more businesses combining their voice and data networks into a single network. 'This is also about utilising our assets to the full and adding value with products and services that appeal to our customers .... What's great is we can do this in Hong Kong, described by the International Telecommunication Union as a 'first mover' in telecoms, and well known for its early adoption of leading-edge technologies,' he said. According to research firm Frost & Sullivan, the total IP market grew by more than 300 per cent in revenue from 2000 to 2001, and the Asia Pacific IP market is expected to record an annual compound growth rate of 65 per cent by 2008. The service, aimed at small to medium-sized businesses in Hong Kong, uses Microsoft Outlook to handle all messages, incoming and outgoing calls, fixed and mobile voice mails, and conference-call sessions, in either English or Chinese. Lotus Notes support will be added next year. Companies will also be able to change their business processes by incorporating voice messaging and instant messaging into their workflow. One of the two packages on offer includes an IP phone that plugs into the office LAN (local area network) alongside a PC or laptop. However, messages can be retrieved using analogue or mobile phones as well. PCCW offers two packages, the standard being $188 per user, and a premium package which includes an IP phone for $328. Business travellers who subscribe to the service will have full access to all the features offered by VPN remote access. PCCW's offering is not unique. Technology companies such as Cisco Systems have been offering technology that enables unified messaging to help employees work via the Web using all sorts of communication - from e-mail to file sharing to instant messaging. Many local companies and some universities have switched to IP networks, incorporating messaging into their workflow, hence sidestepping telecommunications providers. Three years ago, unified messaging was being hyped as the next big thing. Several dotcom companies offered the service free in an attempt to attract users. One of the best-known failed dotcoms in the field was Singaporean startup 2bsure.com, which hired CNN programme host Lorraine Hahn to be its spokesperson. Despite the previous hype about unified communications, telecoms companies did not deliver on the technology's promise and the retail marketing proposition for united communications services in Asia cooled off with the burst of the dotcom bubble.