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DIGITAL MANAGER

9.28.98  
Universal Messaging Delivers Phone Messages, Faxes, and E-Mails to One Place
It will even read notes over the phone when you're on the road

Alex Shogren might have been a poster child for message overload. As president of a 12-person New York money-management firm, Shogren typically gets 50 E-mail messages, 20 voice messages, and 15 faxes every day.

But instead of scrambling around trying to retrieve them from each device, he uses an elegant solution: an Internet-based service that gathers messages from all media in one place and converts them to digital files. He then can get them via E-mail from a private Web page or over the phone. "You take away that service, and I'll kill you," he laughs.

It's not often that office technology inspires such passion. Perhaps that's because universal messaging plays such a central role once you start using it. The service consolidates your messages onto one technology when you're in the office. And when you're on the road, it's a digital version of the old-fashioned answering service.

MAJOR MESSAGERS. We took a look at how two such services -- JFAX and iPost -- work. In this new field (neither has been around much more than a year), they're the best known and have the closest thing to a track record.

Here's how they work. First, you need an E-mail account and a computer with a sound card and speakers. You also must sign up with your local phone company for call-forwarding. Be sure to specify the right service -- one that bounces calls to another number regardless of whether the caller or fax machine gets a busy signal or no answer (ordinary call-forwarding doesn't bounce calls in both cases). That costs $5 to $10 per month, depending on your local telephone company.

Then go to the sign-up instructions posted on the JFAX and iPost Web pages (www.jfax.com and www.ipost.net). Once you get on board, the companies give you a private local telephone number if you live in a major metropolitan area, or a toll-free number if you're not. You give that out as your new fax number.

Now, when you receive voice mail and fax messages, the number picks up and converts them into digital files -- audio clips for the phone messages or conventional fax images. The messaging service can tell the difference between voice and fax calls and responds appropriately. In a few minutes, the messages appear in your E-mail inbox. You open the files and listen to or view them.

That's the basic service, and it's surprisingly inexpensive. Both vendors charge about $13 a month.

SPEAK TO ME. JFAX's basic service also will read E-mail to you over the phone. The computer-simulated voice is annoying, making this a likely last resort, but it allows you to gain access to E-mail when you don't have access to a computer.

IPost offers an enhanced service for an additional $12 a month, which includes the E-mail-reading capability. That price also buys you an option for retrieving messages -- a private, password-protected Web page that acts as another E-mail address and collects all your messages from other media as well. The latter is handy when you're out of the office, because it's often much easier to get onto the Web than it is to dial into your company's E-mail system from outside. On the downside, retrieving messages via the Web page is excruciatingly slow with a standard modem.

JFAX and iPost will also transmit faxes over the Internet from your PC. To do that, you install a free printer driver. After you create a document in, say, your word processor, you select the special driver instead of your regular printer. This E-mails the document to the messaging service, which then sends it as a fax. It costs about 10 cents per page to send faxes. That's at least comparable to what you would pay to send a conventional fax -- and in some cases a considerable savings.

Shogren says the simplicity of universal messaging makes him and his employees more productive. "Without it, I'd have to pay my assistant twice her salary," he says. "Now, she's free for more productive work." That's a message that's easy to understand in any medium.

By David Haskin in Barneveld, Wis.

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