Microsoft has a long history of including various applets with Windows. Some of these applets, such as Notepad and maybe even Solitaire, are virtually indispensable parts of the operating system. Other applets, such as the Character Mapper, remain relatively obscure. Microsoft is including a new applet with Windows Vista called Windows Fax and Scan. Although there is nothing especially remarkable about this new applet in and of itself, it is definitely worth paying attention to. In this article, I will explain why.
What is Windows Fax and Scan?
Windows Fax and Scan is a new applet included with Windows Vista that will allow you to send and receive faxes and to scan documents or images. As I said in the introduction, there is absolutely nothing remarkable about these capabilities. It has been possible to send and receive faxes from a computer for many years now. In fact, most of the time, if you buy a modem it comes bundled with desktop fax software.
The same thing can be said about scanning images or documents. It has been possible to scan images and documents into a computer for well over a decade. On the surface, the only thing that’s even remotely remarkable about Windows Fax and Scan is the fact that Microsoft is now integrating fax and scanning software into the Windows operating system. This means that you will no longer be dependant on third party software for faxing or scanning (although you will most likely want to continue using third party software since most third party scan or fax applications are more full featured).
Of course if Windows Fax and Scan was really as mundane as it appears on the surface, then there is no way that I would be writing about it. What’s important isn’t the fact that you can scan and fax through Windows, but rather the implications of being able to do so.
Figure A shows a screen capture of the Windows Fax and Scan interface. If you look at the figure, you will probably notice that it has a striking resemblance to Microsoft Outlook. This is no coincidence. Traditionally, Outlook has been used to store things like e-mail messages, contacts, and calendar entries. However, when Microsoft releases the next version of Exchange Server and the next version of Outlook, they will be expanding Exchange and Outlook’s roles to allow them to accommodate other types of information.
Figure A: The Windows Fax and Scan Interface looks a lot like Microsoft Outlook
Microsoft has a name for Exchange Server’s extended role. It’s called Unified Messaging. The idea behind unified messaging is that the Exchange Server information store will no longer be used solely to store mailboxes and public folders. It will also be able to store voice messages and faxes. Users will be able to access their voice mail, faxes, and e-mail all through Outlook or through Outlook Web Access..
So what does Unified Messaging have to do with Windows Fax and Scan? Windows Fax and Scan gives us a little bit of a preview of what Unified Messaging may be like. It also brings some of the Unified Messaging capabilities (specifically fax management) to those who may not have Exchange and Outlook. To put it into perspective, Outlook is the mail client of choice for those who use Exchange Server. However, Microsoft has always given us Outlook Express for free. Outlook Express isn’t nearly as full featured as Outlook, but it will get the job done for anyone who simply needs to be able to send and receive e-mail, and who does not need access to an Exchange Server. Windows Fax and Scan can be thought of in the same way. It is sort of the unified messaging equivalent to Outlook Express. Windows Fax and Scan won’t allow you to store faxes alongside your e-mail messages, and it isn’t nearly as full featured as Outlook 2007 will be, but it does allow you to send, receive, and manage faxes through an Outlook style interface.
One of Microsoft’s original plans for Windows Vista was to include a new file system called WinFS. WinFS was supposed to have been database driven and thus allow global indexing of all files. Sadly, WinFS was removed from Vista due to issues involving its reliability. Even so, Microsoft still designed Vista in a way that makes it a lot easier to locate various types of data.
If you look at Figure A, you will notice that there are a number of column headers in the Inbox. As you might expect, these column headers contain information on each fax in the Inbox. The reason why these headers (and other headers not shown in the figure) are significant is because of the way that Windows treats them. Windows Vista treats each fax as an object. The various column headings display individual attributes of each fax object. What this means is that eventually it may be possible to search for a specific fax in the same way that you can search for a specific e-mail now. The current beta of Windows Vista does not seem to include a mechanism that’s specifically designed for searching among faxes, but all of the pieces are in place that could allow such a mechanism to easily be added to the operating system or to third party software.
More on Unified Messaging
Right now you might be wondering why I chose to show you Windows Fax and Scan as a glimpse of what Unified Messaging may be like as opposed to just showing you the new version of Outlook. I would love to show you what Unified Messaging looks like, but the beta version of Exchange that I had at the time of writing this article did not yet include the Unified Messaging component.
Even though I didn’t actually have a beta version of Exchange that included Unified Messaging, Microsoft has released a significant amount of information regarding the features that it will support. Unified Messaging will link your company’s PBX (phone) system to your network in a way that allows faxes and voice mail to be displayed along side of e-mail messages in Outlook. There is also one other feature to Unified Messaging that I haven’t mentioned yet though.
As you probably know, Exchange Server 2003 includes a component called Outlook Web Access that allows users to retrieve their e-mail through a Web interface that is designed to look like Outlook. Exchange 2007 will still include Outlook Web Access, but the Unified Messaging component will add an additional feature called Outlook Voice Access. Outlook Voice Access (OVA) is a verbal interface for Exchange Server.
Right now employees at your company probably have the ability to dial a special phone number and remotely check their voice mail while away from the office. OVA simply extends this capability. Users will still be able to dial in and check their voice mail, but they will also be able to have OVA verbally read them their e-mail messages and calendar entries. Furthermore, users will be able to do many of the same things through OVA that they now do through Outlook. For example, a user could verbally respond to an e-mail over the phone. Likewise, a user could change a calendar appointment or even schedule a meeting all from a telephone.
Of course, Unified Messaging doesn’t just revolve around voice mail and e-mail. Faxes are a big part of Unified Messaging. According to what I have been reading, Exchange Server won’t be able to verbally read a fax to you over the phone, but it will have some other capabilities. For example, you will be able to forward a fax (or a voice mail for that matter) just as you forward an e-mail message today.
In this article I have explained why I believe that Windows Fax and Scan is going to be worth paying attention to. I then went on to discuss how these capabilities will be rolled into Exchange 2007’s Unified Messaging component.
Note: At the time of writing, this feature is not included in the Home and Home Premium Editions of Vista.