Well-Financed onebox.com Enters Crowded Unified Messaging Market

The drab IPO Friday for Internet fax and unified messaging pioneer jfax.com shows that first-mover status is no guarantee of success.

The field has gotten very crowded very fast this year with upstarts such as efax.com, RocketTalk and the newest contender, onebox.com which has raised more that $20 million in two rounds since its launch in May 1998 from the likes of Institutional Venture Partners (IVP), Brentwood Associates and ZDNet.

The features arms race has heated up as well with onebox.com the current leader in offerings allowing users to receive voicemail and faxes via their e-mail account and to be notified via ICQ when new messages are received. The onebox.com software even allows users to send a voice message to standard e-mail addresses. Of course this assumes that the recipient has a multimedia system to play back the voice files.

Unlike jfax and efax, who assign users their own unique telephone number, onebox.com users get a phone number with a four-digit extension which complicates the sending of faxes: clear documentation on the onebox.com site explains the procedure, but it remains to be seen whether senders will have the patience to work through this hassle.

But hassle or not the system works out to a better profit model for onebox.com which says that getting a new customer started and hosted is under $10 per user compared with more than $35 for jfax and efax.

The extension system may also give onebox.com better scalability as phone numbers get scarcer — a situation well illustrated by the willy-nilly proliferation of areas codes and overlays.

“We can build a system that can scale to millions and millions of customers,” says Tim Haley, a onebox.com board member and partner with IVP. “We can operate much, much more cheaply as a free service than those who offer a phone number for every user.”

Forrester Research analyst Eric Schmitt agrees.

“You only have to have one phone number for every 10,000 people.”

Schmitt said that the extension system, the ICQ integration and the current lack of fax sending capability made onebox.com ideal for college students rather than corporate use. Haley conceded the appeal to college students but noted that HotMail began in a similar fashion and quickly spread throughout corporate America among employees who wanted to keep their private messages and information off the company server.

Fax sending and other capabilities are in the works foe onebox.com — probably as premium, for-pay services — say company officials who note that the current Web site is still in beta and that other capabilities such as integration of pager services are currently being developed.

For now, efax is the frontrunner, claiming almost 1 million users. While numbers are closely held, analysts and other in the industry say jfax has about 30,000 (mostly paying) customers and onebox, about 25,000.

But the race for users has just truly been joined. This market space has also attracted Microsoft which said that the next version of its Microsoft Exchange Server will target this market which means that there will be plenty of battle scars to go around by the time this market sorts itself out.

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