Microsoft OCS update promises to replace PBX

Communications Server "14" could help companies move of aging legacy systems

Microsoft previews the next version of its unified communications software, Communications Server "14," at VoiceCon Orlando 2010 conference.

Microsoft unveiled its updated unified communications software that the company says will help customers move off PBX systems, but industry watchers wonder if the previewed Communications Server "14" will integrate with more than just Microsoft-approved software and hardware.

Vendors ally with Microsoft at VoiceCon

"Obviously this release has been much-anticipated. The industry was waiting for the release when OCS became a full PBX replacement," says Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group. "Microsoft has a good vision of where they want to take this industry, and it is similar to other vendors like Cisco, except Microsoft will argue they don't make the hardware. Yet the company does dictate with which hardware the unified communications software will work, and it's only a handful like Polycom."

Microsoft Wednesday introduced its updated Office Communications Server – code-named Communications Server "14" -- at VoiceCon Orlando 2010, and company executives demonstrated during a keynote presentation there how the next version of Microsoft Office Communication Server integrates with applications such as SharePoint, Exchange and Office. Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Unified Communications Group said during the keynote address that the company's updated unified communications software, Communications Server "14," will provide IT organizations with the next-generation platform on which to collaborate with voice and video applications as well as a simple, cost-effective alternative to aging PBX systems.

"This system works with the communications systems you have in place, and it will sit next to it and work well with it, because you may not want to throw away the PBX," Pall said. "But this product, when ready to move, will be ready to carry the entire load that your PBX is carrying."

According to Pall, in the next three years more than 75% of new business applications will include embedded unified communications and standard business calls today will become outdated with more than 50% of VoIP calls incorporating more than just voice. Industry watchers agree companies and consumers are moving away from traditional voice systems and embracing collaboration tools that are tied to social media and other technologies. But the transition might not be as quick.

"People are using other forms of communications, that's true, but the move away from voice won't happen as quickly as Microsoft thinks it will, but then Microsoft doesn't make money on phones," Kerravala says.

Microsoft's demonstration at VoiceCon lacked a few things for Kerravala. The company didn't go into great detail about branch office survivability solutions or 911 services, for instance, but Microsoft also didn't explain how it would work with third-party systems. Polycom, HP and NET, and several others, announced earlier in the week that they would separately be expanding relationships with Microsoft to better integrate with OCS and the company's UC products.

Competing with Cisco, Avaya, Siemens and IBM, Microsoft will need to differentiate itself, Kerravala suggests, with customer examples of how the Communications Server "14" changed the way they worked and helped them to cut costs in the process.

"Cisco and Microsoft will compete most directly because they are both trying to do everything, going after the whole suite, they both have e-mail packages, but Microsoft will say it doesn't do hardware, it just dictates the hardware specifications," Kerravala says. "If Microsoft is going to win in this market, it will have to depend on developers, they are what makes the company successful."

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