Microsoft unveils unified comms strategy

Microsoft's VoIP strategy emphasises software-based comms, labels IP PBX expensive toys.

Microsoft Corp. today drew a line in the sand for all of its VoIP and unified communications (UC) competitors, declaring that the next few years could see the demise of the PBX as communications become more software-driven.

In his keynote address at VoiceCon Spring 2007, Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business division, announced public beta testing of Office Communications Server 2007, the software heavyweight's VoIP and UC server; and Office Communicator 2007, its UC client.

In his speech, Raikes predicted that over the next three years, the average VoIP solution will cost enterprises half of what it costs today because VoIP systems will move from hardware to software. He added that over the same period, roughly 100 million people will be able to make phone calls directly from their Microsoft Office applications.

Taking a stab at some of Microsoft's main competition, Raikes compared today's IP PBXs to yachts, noting that they look good, carry a hefty price tag and are rarely used to their full potential or value.

"Software-driven communication is bringing a pace that is much more dramatic," he said, commenting that Microsoft's announcements mark an inflection point where software and telephony truly come together.

With software-powered VoIP, Raikes said, companies can boost productivity, save money, spark innovation and improve their choice of technology.

Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007 add a host of new VoIP features that allow users to initiate calls, audio- and videoconferences, instant messages, and other media through Office applications like Outlook and SharePoint Server, while also being able to see the presence of others based on colored icons next to their names and drop-down menus indicating their preferred means of communication. Essentially, it's click-to-communicate abilities from Office applications, allowing users to work together in real time from anywhere or any device.

Voicemail messages can also be heard through the same interface, and a record of all communications is kept and stored.

Mobile users can use their office number or other tools, like instant messaging or audio- and videoconferencing, through a Windows Mobile operating system.

"It's not just about intelligent communication, it's about integrated intelligent communication," Raikes said.

He also announced that Microsoft is publishing the Office Communications Server 2007 interoperability specification, which shows how Office Communications Server can integrate with other technologies.

Raikes referred to the software-based model as designed to "teach that old phone new tricks."

Gurdeep Pall, corporate vice president for Microsoft's Unified Communications group, said companies can take a phased approach to implementing Office Communications Server 2007 without having to abandon the PBXs they have already invested in. He said companies, over time, can cut over, eventually decommissioning the PBX for good, using a Microsoft for voice, IM and presence capabilities.

"This industry will go through a 90-degree shift," Pall said.

Yankee Group analyst Vanessa Alvarez said Raikes' keynote showed that Microsoft is "definitely coming to market aggressively." She said some veiled shots at Cisco and other competitors, like the yacht and PBX comparison, showed that Microsoft means business.

Alvarez added that solutions available through Office Communications Server 2007 will rival that of Cisco's TelePresence, which now is designed mostly for a select few within an organization. Microsoft is offering UC capabilities to all information workers.

"Microsoft is making unified communications available to all information workers, as opposed to just the CEOs," she said. "Why make something available to only 2% of your organization?"

Other factors, such as cost benefits and the ability to use the existing network while migrating to Microsoft, are key to its offering, Alvarez said.

"I don't think the IP PBX will be obsolete," she said. "But you'll start to see transition from IP PBX systems to a software-based system."

John Pajak, systems technical consultant for MassMutual Financial Group, said Microsoft's vision of software-driven communication will let companies take advantage of advanced capabilities, all with a level of familiarity.

"It puts something right in front of you through a screen that everyone's used to: Outlook," Pajak said.

Eric Zeppa, director of information systems for Babson Capital Management LLC, agreed, noting that he sees software-based VoIP and communications tools as a practical and simple way for end users to stay connected.

Zeppa said that Babson has some components of a UC deployment, including unified messaging, but putting everything together in one place will enhance that.

"We have a lot of standalone tools," he said, noting that he uses unified messaging to get messages via his BlackBerry. "We've got a lot of pieces -- we just don't have it all unified. I feel like I'm more productive with my BlackBerry, but it's still not truly unified."

But if Raikes' vision comes about, software will have the same impact in the VoIP world as it did in the desktop world, he said.

"Software is set to transform business phone systems as profoundly as it has transformed virtually every other form of workplace communication," Raikes said.


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