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Unisys' local arm is a testbed for global giant

By Aimee McClinchy

Friday 8th September 2000

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RUSSELL STANNERS: Brainchild going well
Unisys New Zealand has developed a "universal message box" capable of changing the format of voice or text messages which its parent company is taking worldwide.

The three-year, $10 million project is the latest of many in which the local arm has been used as a testbed - or lab to develop and test ideas before general use - for Unisys globally.

It follows soon after a home-grown $5 million application service provider (ASP) - where software and applications are available for rent over the web - which is being used as a global blueprint and was also funded from the US.

Unisys' head office funded this messaging service project - which collects email, fax, text and voice mail messages into one store, converts them and lets the user pick them up in any form they need to - after it decided no other country could do it better.

Working with hardware developers in Pennsylvania, a team of up to 100 Wellington-based software developers built the service so it could work over the web.

Strong enough to be rolled out by national telcos for their customers, it has already been sold to eight, including telcos in Germany, Holland, Asia and Latin America.

At least 15 other projects are being worked on by the company's communications solutions division, which owns the intellectual property and sells it on to Unisys and customers worldwide.

"We've been chosen because we showed we could do things constantly on time, under budget and fast - our speed to market is a challenge others haven't overcome," said John Vickers, general manager for the communications solution group and specialist team.

"Now we have people in South Africa, the East, Taiwan and China interested in what we are doing."

The US head office's interest was also partly to do with costs, Jon Wallace, the group's business development manager said. "It's Kiwi ingenuity, No 8 wire: we've been operating on begged, borrowed but not stolen equipment. But it's also about skills, combining an understanding of how the internet works with how a [deregulated] telco market works."

Companies such as IBM and Intel regularly export local software back to their parent companies as parts of products.

Last week US giant Motorola decided not to locate its multimillion dollar software development in Christchurch, despite being wooed by the highest levels of government and business. But it said it was aware the country was an "attractive test-bed for digital wireless and optical telecommunications" and would send staff to look at other opportunities. Nasdaq-listed GPS specialist Trimble Navigation also recently said it would increase its funding to its Christchurch lab.

But Unisys chose New Zealand as one of four "centres of excellence" for telecommunications and convergence in 1992 - light years ago in internet time - alongside London, Paris and Treddyffrin, Pennsylvania.

Its communications solutions division was the first team to implement a large-scale call minder or message services and voicemail platform outside the US that same year, with Telecom New Zealand. The team has since completed its $20 million project with Telecom and worked on calling card services, prepaid cards and operator-less collect call systems for over 40 telcos worldwide, as well as being the exclusive communication development lab for Unisys Australia.

But it has gained momentum under general manager John Vickers, who last year brought in a new management style. Mr Vickers stepped up the graduate-recruitment programme - including a policy where Unisys does not hire straight A students but rather all-rounders who have learned team skills through sports - and rotates his 100 staff through tasks and overseas postings.

He introduced a brochure for the team to sell its locally owned, original products to other Unisys arms and customers, a first for the company.

Staff have been encouraged to allocate their working hours to get specific projects done as soon as possible - and recent achievements have included the "quick chat" 15 second free message service for Telecom mobiles, developed in under six weeks.

This version of the universal messaging project was put together since February.

Hands-on manager Mr Wallace said that on a research budget of $US1.5 million this year, a rotating team of 50 had customised the Pennsylvania team's telephony server to accept all forms of messages and to work through a browser over the web.

It was the first time such technology had been available in industrial strength for large telcos, he said.

It allowed, for example, voice and fax messages to be forwarded to email accounts and mobile text messages and emails to be converted into voice messages.

All messages can then be received anywhere, by phone or computer. Users can still use their ISP and old email address.

Mr Wallace said the team's next big project was personal messaging, where one number is assigned for all messages and these then seek out the owner anywhere in the world.

The team was also working with Telecom/Microsoft/EDS alliance esolutions on e-commerce projects, which their parent companies will together take overseas. Another 80-strong team is still working on the ASP "apps on tap" service, which went live in late June and has joined with Clear Communications.

It is the brainchild of Unisys managing director Russell Stanners and ASP services manager Sean McDonald.

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