E-mail should be simple—you send a message, you get a message. When you join functions like calendaring, collaboration, and unified messaging capabilities to an e-mail application, things get a little more complicated. Yet it’s imperative that managers still have a communication product that’s reliable and easy to maintain.

If your organization has hundreds or thousands of users, finding a robust product your shop can support with minimal resources is a chore. You don’t have too many options: You can go with Microsoft Outlook or a product from IBM’s Lotus software family, but some IT pros will tell you that these products are hard to manage.

Bob Reeder, CIO of Alaska Airlines, uses a different product—FirstClass by Centrinity—to support the messaging requirements of the airline’s nearly 14,000 users. Reeder said his company is already using the beta for Centrinity’s new version of the product.

Based in Toronto and founded in 1989, Centrinity will release FirstClass version 7.0 on July 15. This version provides the same messaging benefits as competitive platforms, but it also converges e-mail, voice mail, and fax messages into a unified mailbox to give users access to data and messages via computer, telephone, cellular phone, or handheld device.

FirstClass takes to the sky
Alaska Airlines (which, according to Reeder, sold the first airline ticket online), implemented a version of the FirstClass product more than five years ago when the company had an installed base of a thousand users on both Macs and PCs.

“FirstClass was the only thing we could find that was compatible with the infrastructure at the time,” said Reeder, who is also a senior vice president of the company. (FirstClass runs on Windows, Macintosh, and UNIX platforms.) The airline also maintained three separate e-mail systems before it switched to FirstClass exclusively.

Alaska Airlines has been loyal to Centrinity and the FirstClass product for two key reasons:

  • It’s a server-side-only application.
  • It combines different communication tools into one system.

More control
Like previous versions, FirstClass 7.0 operates solely on a server-side basis. “A single FirstClass server may contain the entire collection of mailboxes, or it can act as one of many message servers. In the case of multiple servers, each has a logical group of user mailboxes and a copy of the system directory,” said Gartner research director Jay Lassman in a report on FirstClass.

Using a server-based product gives managers more control over the system and how it’s used, Reeder said. For example, Alaska Airlines runs FirstClass 7.0 on one Windows 2000 server. Running the product on one server, which can house all of an organization’s e-mail, also makes it easier for an IT team to manage all types of communication content, said Scott Welch, Centrinity’s chief evangelist.

FirstClass also gives Alaska Airlines the ability to integrate many types of communication into one solution. “It’s a totally different design concept from a client-based e-mail system like Exchange. (Since) it’s all sever-based, you can get to unified messaging so much simpler because any client can really just hit the server and read it or speak the message to (another user),” said Reeder.

Running FirstClass on only one server can make the product more reliable. “Once you have it, you don’t want to babysit it all the time,” said Dana Tardelli, a senior analyst with the Aberdeen Group, an IT market analysis and positioning services firm in Boston. “So obviously the more reliable and more scalable it is, the less you have to babysit it, the less it costs you, the happier your IT department is.”

Indeed, Reeder said Alaska Airlines administers the product with just one person, “and she’s got time to do other things.”

FirstClass is easy on users as well as administrators. As Figure A shows, FirstClass boasts an intuitive, user-friendly interface.

Figure A
FirstClass Version 7.0 e-mail application adopted an Outlook feel.

Unified abilities
The real power of FirstClass 7.0 lies in its ability to combine communication conduits. With the product, one user can leave a message in another’s e-mail account over the telephone, or a sales rep on the road can dial in to his e-mail account and hear a computer-generated voice relay his messages over a cellular phone.

The product can also relay the same message in many forms to one person. For example, a voice mail message can be translated into text and sent simultaneously to an e-mail account, a pager, or a cell phone.

These unified messaging capabilities can save time because users need to check only one place for all of their messages, said Ken Landoline, vice president and director of telecom research with the Robert Frances Group, an advisory service for Global 2000 and midmarket executives.

Having messages in one place also reduces the risk of missing important messages, he said. So for about $95 per user, or the cost of FirstClass per seat, a user could shave hours a week off conducting remedial tasks and add those hours to more productive work.

Gradual steps
FirstClass gives managers the ability to warm up to unified messaging. Because Version 7.0 gives managers the ability to turn on only the communication processes they need now, it works well for organizations that want some unified messaging capabilities now but will move to a total unified communication system in the future, said Landoline.

For example, your organization might need voice-to-e-mail capability today, but you know you’ll need text-to-voice capability in the future. “This product gives people the ability to get ready for unified messaging…with the capability to turn on more aspects as they go on…piece by piece,” said Landoline.

The FirstClass product is up against some heavy competition. It’s hard to compete with applications that come bundled on a machine, said Reeder. However, the product is inexpensive and easy for managers to monitor and control. Centrinity’s FirstClass 7.0 can prep your organization for unified messaging.