Microsoft beefs up collaboration software

The Office Communicator messaging tool is the latest component in Microsoft's increasingly integrated strategy for collaboration, but does it deliver?, asks Christopher Harris-Jones

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The Office Communicator messaging tool is the latest component in Microsoft's increasingly integrated strategy for collaboration, but does it deliver?, asks Christopher Harris-Jones

Office Communicator, the latest component in Microsoft's collaboration software strategy, adds significant functionality and complexity to a growing suite of software for collaborative working.

The instant messaging and user presence tool has been much trailed under the codename Istanbul. It is not as comprehensive as was originally planned, but nevertheless does provide some impressive features.

The user interface for Office Communicator features a panel that lists colleagues (potentially both inside an organisation and outside) and can group them to provide sections based on, for example, different projects being worked on. The panel identifies presence through status icons such as "available", "away", "do not disturb" and "offline".

Individuals can also customise messages that can be viewed directly from this panel and display Microsoft Outlook "out of office" messages automatically. As well as identifying the presence of individuals on the company network, Microsoft provides connectors so that users can determine the presence of individuals using AOL, Yahoo and MSN instant messaging products.

The software delivers voice over IP and can connect directly into a PSTN gateway, which allows seamless use of VoIP and the public telephone network. This means that, for example, once an instant messaging session has been initiated, the user can add new participants or convert it directly into a voice conference using VoIP. If some participants want to use the public network, the server will call each person automatically on their preferred method of communication (office phone, home phone, mobile or VoIP).

A Livemeeting web conferencing session can also be initiated automatically, potentially in parallel with a VoIP or PSTN-based teleconference.

In both cases, the process is completely automatic.

To share applications, a Netmeeting session can be automatically initiated. The Netmeeting  tool delivers video and audio conferencing, white-boarding, desktop sharing and various other collaboration facilities.

Unfortunately, the functionality of Livemeeting and Netmeeting has not yet been integrated, despite the substantial overlap in the business requirements for the two packages. At present, Livemeeting remains a broadcast-only tool; it is necessary to use Netmeeting for fully interactive meetings. Another integration issue is that there are separate chat facilities in Livemeeting and Office Communicator.

Office Communicator is available from within Sharepoint Portal Server. One additional feature is that the act of loading a document from a shared workplace will automatically provide instant access to all the members of the workplace. A drop-down menu from Outlook gives full access to Office Communicator functions.

Microsoft seems to have an increasingly integrated strategy for collaboration. The high-level products appear very sound and seem to be offering what end-users need to work effectively in a collaborative environment.

The tools provide a comprehensive range of functions, although many are duplicated in various products, which makes things more complex for users. These problems arise largely because of the way that Microsoft is organised into multiple groups around products, rather than around the collaboration vision.

Although Microsoft will continue to play a leading role in collaboration software, it suffers when compared with suppliers such as Oracle and IBM. Both of these organisations have simple, coherent messages for the collaboration tools they deliver, even though the functionality is actually provided by multiple pieces of software underneath the covers.

Christopher Harris-Jones is principal analyst at Ovum

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