Soon you'll be able to boot up your laptop or pick up the phone and retrieve your voice mail, E-mail, and faxes

Technological options invite complications. Once upon a time, you entered your office to find all your messages in one stack of paper -- mail, memos, and pink slips for telephone calls. Now you need to check your voice mail, your electronic mail, and your fax machine. Wouldn't it be nice to get everything in one neat -- albeit virtual -- pile again? The tools that will enable you to retrieve various sorts of telephone and computer messages aren't all available yet, but they are on the way.

A good integrated messaging system will collect at least the main types of incoming messages -- voice mail, E-mail, and fax -- in a single computer mailbox. E-mail is already in there, of course, and you can forward mail from several E-mail addresses to one main address. The challenge has been to get voice mail, faxes, and print mail into the computer mailbox.

For years, voice-mail systems were designed using special computers that could not exchange data with other computers, so voice-mail messages were retrievable only by telephone. Now the newest telephone systems can connect easily to standard computer networks, so they can send voice-mail recordings to the computer on your desk or to a network computer.

How will those voice capabilities be linked with E-mail and faxes? On your modem-equipped desktop or laptop computer, you will get a list of all messages. As you select specific ones, E-mail will appear on screen, and voice mail will be retrieved from the phone system and played through your computer's speaker. Voice-mail messages may tell you when the message was sent and -- if it's available through caller identification or a company directory -- the name of the caller.

Your computer mailbox will also contain fax messages if they are received by a fax modem in a networked computer rather than by a traditional fax machine. The fax will not be printed out; instead the image will be displayed on your screen, not as a text file but as a scanned image you can read. Print mail will be harder to integrate. Optical character recognition, which turns printed text that has been scanned into a computer into text files you can edit, does not yet work well enough to process general correspondence without considerable editing -- and it works even less well on fax images. Because fax and print messages will work much less elegantly than E-mail or voice mail, you may want to discourage both.

What will happen when you don't have a computer handy and you want to retrieve all your messages by phone? You will call your company phone system, and one of those charming electronic voices will tell you that you have, for instance, "three voice-mail messages, two E-mail messages, and one fax." The message will continue: "Press 1 for a list, 2 to play back priority messages, 3 to play back all messages, 4 for more options." Those further options will allow you to retrieve only voice- or only E-mail messages.

Let's say you press 1 for the list. The voice will say: "Message list. For each message, press 7 to play message immediately, 8 to mark message, 9 to skip message.

"9:15 a.m. -- John Smith called with priority message. 9:35 a.m. -- E-mail from Ann Reed; new sales summary. 10:05 a.m. -- priority E-mail from Larry Adams; needs revised sales figures. 10:40 a.m. -- outside call. 11:25 a.m. -- fax from Dunphy, Winston, and Palmer Co. End of list. Press 3 to play marked messages, 4 for more options."

When you play the marked messages, you'll hear the voice-mail messages. You'll also hear the E-mail messages, read by a computer-synthesized voice. A synthesized voice isn't ideal, but you'll know if you need to take action immediately.

Integrated messaging systems will be available within 12 to 24 months. Yet even when they arrive, you'd do well to rely mostly on E-mail -- for ease of retrieval, it can't be beat.

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Cary Lu ( was formerly technology editor of Inc.