Microsoft outlines broad unified communications strategy

Microsoft Monday laid out its strategy for unified communications, spelling out its plans to integrate e-mail, instant messaging, voice and video into a single platform that stretches across corporate applications and services.

The company laid out upgrades and a roadmap for its current software lineup and introduced a hardware product called Office RoundTable, formerly code-named Ring Cam, an audio conference room phone with a 360-degree camera for online meetings.

The software, hardware and Web conferencing service are part of a family of products around Office 2007, which is slated to ship in November to corporate clients.

Microsoft did not announce any new software, but did change the name of its instant messaging and presence software from Live Communications Server to Office Communications Server 2007.

The other pieces of the puzzle include Exchange Server 2007, the Office Communicator 2007 client including a version for phones, and the Office Live Meeting 2007 Web conferencing service.

Microsoft said all the upgraded and new real-time communications software, hardware and services would be available in the second quarter of 2007. The company plans to have betas of all the software by the end of the year.

Microsoft made the announcements during a “Unified Communications Day” in San Francisco hosted by Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft’s business division, Anoop Gupta, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s unified communications group, and Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of the real-time collaboration product group at Microsoft.

Earlier this year, Microsoft merged its Exchange group and real-time collaboration group to form the unified communications group.

Microsoft’s intent is to provide users with a single platform for real-time communications that can be integrated with traditional desktop and network applications, mobile devices and the business processes that run across all three.

“This is a bold move,” says Mike Gotta, an analyst with the Burton Group. “Microsoft’s focus is on the bigger game, rather than cherry-picking some real-time communications features.”

Gotta says the potential exists to change the way corporate users think about deploying real-time communications, which is becoming increasingly important in an online world.

“They are talking about one big architectural domain," Gotta says. "Microsoft is trying to change the nature of the argument. Why compete when you can change the rules?”

Gotta says that thinking will force corporate users to ask questions about how other pieces plug into the architecture, about interoperability around standards and how to deal with federation to the real-time environment of partners.

Potential changes are already evident.

Microsoft showed off the new capabilities of Exchange earlier this month at its annual TechEd conference with demonstrations of unified messaging capabilities including integration of voice with email, calendaring and other Exchange features. Those features also include potential architectural changes within the Exchange infrastructure.

Raikes says a Q&A session following the unified communications event also hinted at other changes specifically on IP-PBX deployments.

“We do think over the next few years there will be a dramatic transformation with IP-PBX,” said Raikes. “The way in which that is going to play out is to build on the infrastructure that companies have in place but then give them new capabilities. And frankly, it's probably ultimately true that they may think of themselves as not actually purchasing a PBX but adding the kind of software platform, enterprise communications software platform, to their server and network infrastructure.”

Gotta say there are also questions from a development standpoint. “If I develop applications, does this lock me into a backend provider?”

Microsoft says it is not introducing any new protocols and is firmly behind Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and SIP for Instant Messaging and Presence Leveraging Extensions (SIMPLE). The company did not say if it planned to support Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP).

But clearly, Microsoft focus is on its lineup of software.

“The approach we are going to take is to use the power of software and apply the innovation and the economics of that to this communications problem,” says Eric Swift, senior director of product management in the unified communications group at Microsoft.

“We want to ensure that people can communicate from the applications they use and the business processes they use and reach the people they need to, by being able to see their availability and to communicate in a method that is most effective for them.”

As part of Monday’s stake in the ground around unified communications, Microsoft announced improvements to its software lineup.

With Communications Server, Microsoft has added multi-user data and application sharing and video support, as well as deeper integration with a PBX to support advanced call features. Users also can place calls by using names and e-mail addresses. Microsoft also has added what it calls enhanced presence, which lets users set their presence by groups listed in Active Directory. Microsoft has also added metadata extensions to the directory so developers can add controls for presence rules to their applications.

On the client side, Microsoft will introduce Communicator client software for phones to provide integration with voice and video devices, including IP-enabled business desktop phones from Polycom, LG-Nortel, and Thomson Telecom.

The new piece of the puzzle is Office RoundTable, which plugs into Communications Server. RoundTable, which grew out of Microsoft Research, provides a panorama shot of everyone sitting at a conference table and a picture of the active speaker in a separate window on the PC.

With Office Live Meeting, an online service, Microsoft will add video streaming, Flash support and IP-based voice capability. Microsoft also plans to introduce other services, including hosted presence and instant messaging for business, so users can connect their Communications Server to partners' IM infrastructures.

Microsoft also unveiled partnerships to support peripheral devices such as USB handsets, headsets and Webcams and PC monitors. The partners include Samsung, Plantronics, Tatung, Logitech and Motorola. Their devices will be integrated with Office Communicator 2007.

Exchange Server 2007 is expected to be available in late 2006 or early 2007. Communications Server 2007, Communicator 2007, Communicator for phones, RoundTable, and IP Phones featuring Communicator are slated to ship sometime between April 1 and July 1, 2007.

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