E-mail, telephony, audio, video and web conferencing, instant messaging and collaboration will all be combined in Office 2007 and other forthcoming Microsoft products.
Microsoft revealed last week that unified communications technologies would be part of Office 2007 products. The firm said the technologies would "break down today's silos of e-mail, instant messaging, mobile and VoIP telephony, and audio, video and web conferencing".
The idea of unified communications is not new, and suppliers such as IBM, Lotus, and Microsoft, as well as telecos such as BT, have been developing software to do this for many years. However, up to now products have fallen short of delivering true unified messaging.
Among the products Microsoft is working on are Office Communications Server 2007, which uses the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) standard, to support real-time unified messaging and presence-based services. Such services indicate the availability and best means of communication for any individual user.
Exchange Server 2007's unified messaging supports e-mail, voice-mail and fax, and offers new capabilities such as speech-based auto attendant, which allows users to access their universal inbox from any phone.
Another product, Office Communicator 2007, is a unified communications client that works with Office Communications Server 2007. It creates a presence-based, enterprise VoIP software phone, which can connect to public instant messaging (IM) networks such as MSN, AOL and Yahoo.
Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's Business Division, said unified communications would boost individual, team and organisational productivity. "We believe that software can transform business communications, bringing down both its cost and complexity," he said.
Forrester Research vice-president Elizabeth Herrell said a Forrester survey of 714 European and US companies about their unified messaging plans showed that the number of organisations in the initial roll-out stage of unified messaging had risen to 15% from 6% the previous year.
"Enterprises consider reliability and interoperability the most important factors to consider when adopting unified messaging," she said.