Network: Music was my first love, but numbers saved my life

With technology constantly changing, how does a peripatetic musician keep his contacts up to date? Easy. He invents a revolutionary new messaging system.
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The Independent Culture
Few people will have much sympathy for the travelling pop star struggling with a full diary. But Internet users at least have reason to thank Jaye Muller, 27-year-old progressive musician and Internet entrepreneur. Muller, from East Berlin originally, but now living in New York, is the man behind the JFAX fax and messaging system. Muller may have named the service - which lets users pick up their voicemail and faxes through e- mail - for himself, but he shows few other outward signs of immodesty.

Muller is privately surprised that his idea has taken off and become a sizeable company, with operations in 70 countries and offices in New York and Los Angeles. He's even more surprised no one else thought of it first. JFAX is one of a growing breed of "unified messaging" services, that let users collect all their calls and faxes in one place. JFAX differs as it works over the Net, and uses ordinary phone numbers rather than pager, mobile or personal numbers. So it is ideal for regular travellers who want to retain a contact number in more than one city. On a business card, JFAX numbers look just like any other: 0171 for London, 212 for New York. And, unlike a conventional phone, you don't have to live in the city or even have an address there. JFAX lets its users sign up for as many numbers, in as many cities, as they wish, providing they pay each $12.99 monthly fee.

JFAX works by digitising an incoming fax or voice message and forwarding it to a subscriber as an e-mail attachment. On Windows 95, all the software needed to run JFAX is already installed; other computer users can download the necessary utilities over the Net. For paying subscribers, JFAX supports sending faxes as e-mail attachments to JFAX, which sends them on conventionally; and e-mail to voice services for collecting e-mail by phone for users who cannot access their computers. Muller confesses to falling back on this service on his recent visit to London, as he'd forgotten his US-to- UK modem adapter.

"The idea for the service started out of a personal need, when I was on a tour," he explains. "I was touring in the UK and we had to change hotels almost every night. People always send faxes and they usually arrived after I'd left for the next hotel.

"I could never keep up with telling people where I was or where I was going to be. It was driving me crazy. But my e-mail worked fine: it was always the same address, I just plugged my laptop in. I wanted the same convenience I have for e-mail for my faxes and voice messages."

He expected to find a service from one of the main phone companies, but to his surprise, his research failed to identify one. He spent the rest of his tour writing a paper and designing a prototype. "I never thought that I'd have a business of this size," he admits. "The idea in the beginning was simply that I wanted to get my faxes and voice mail."

Music is Jaye Muller's first love, and he tries to spend half his time on his albums. But growing up in East Germany meant learning a trade, and he chose electronic design, working on microchip architecture. He had no formal business training when he founded JFAX some four years ago, but believes his technical training and his experience of the music industry stood him in good stead. "I was able to build a prototype and I was able to ask the right questions and demonstrate the service. I found a team of hardcore programmers from the telecoms world to translate that into a robust commercial system," he says.

"Communication is the killer app for the Internet," he says. Web pages might grab the glamour and the attention, but messaging is what millions of people do on the Internet each day, mostly through e-mail.

JFAX works as it makes use of existing technology rather than forcing users to install new software or buy new equipment. The rental is about the same as for a dedicated fax line, but it is far more versatile. The service also scores as it uses real, recognisable phone numbers. Muller says: "This enables companies and individuals to have a branch office or a virtual office in another town, such as Tokyo or Sydney. You don't have to be physically present in each," he explains.

"It is all about accessibility. The idea for JFAX is you don't have to change your e-mail: it works with whatever you have. The idea is to get communications independent of location. You can still have a New York number or whatever you need, but you aren't a slave to your machines."

JFAX has also introduced a free service, which has less recognisable numbers and no fax sending capability. Users cannot choose their numbers. In the US, the numbers come from a small Californian town. In the UK, they will be given a "personal number" with the 0700 code. Muller believes a free service is the best way to bring in business. So far, JFAX has done little advertising, relying instead on word of mouth to generate new subscriptions.

In time, Muller expects to expand the JFAX idea so it can handle voice calls, not just voice messages. He hopes to offer subscribers the choice of taking a call in person or forwarding it to a mailbox, accessible by e-mail. But he rejects the idea that this will turn JFAX into another phone company. "It will be totally different. But it will be voice or data, live or messaging. I wouldn't call it Internet telephony either: that implies you use unreliable lines. We've are own phone lines. It could be voice-over Internet protocol (IP), but not over the Net. The phone companies are already using IP on their own networks." Two years ago, the big telephone companies were not interested in Muller's approaches. Now, most have their own unified messaging departments. Muller has already cemented alliances with companies ranging from Bell South to New Zealand Telecom. Closer to home, he is interested finding ways that the Internet can handle people's day-to-day tasks. Time is an increasingly scarce commodity, but Muller believes electronic services can win some time back.

"A personal assistant is another thing I am thinking about automating," he says. "Electronics won't ever replace people but appliances and tasks will be replaced. Either you have a personal assistant who knows you, or something you program. Intelligence and creativity and original thinking will never be replaced, but there is no reason that we cannot automate our more repetitive tasks."

JFAX is on