Microsoft OCS opens up developer opportunities

The issue of customer ownership will likely influence how the application vendor community aligns itself, if at all, with Microsoft’s latest unified communications (UC) platform.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company is expecting a high adoption rate for its recently launched Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007, the successor to Live Communications Server 2005, which is a software-based communications platform designed to integrate real-time messaging capabilities with Office productivity tools. If vendors believe that Microsoft’s UC vision is indeed viable, “they will want to be on that OCS train”, said Jon Arnold, principal of Toronto, Ont.-based research firm J. Arnold & Associates.

However, the fundamental issue of customer control will emerge, and in particular, vendors might feel that a Microsoft integrated environment will sacrifice some functionality in their applications that would otherwise be more powerful solo, he said.

SAP and Oracle, for instance, could potentially present competitive platforms to OCS, given they could also host UC solutions, said Arnold. But if they choose to interoperate and “defer too much to Microsoft, the customer ends up building all of their processes around the OCS environment, and these applications have to increasingly conform to and be secondary to Microsoft’s chain of command.”

Arnold said he thinks vendors may broaden their offerings with different versions of their platform — one that’s OCS interoperable and another that’s standalone with uncompromised functionality.

Third party wild cards Microsoft, on the other hand, may further integrate itself in the enterprise by working with third parties to build interoperable enterprise solutions comparable to more costly custom apps from the likes of SAP and Oracle, said Arnold.

Tyson Choptain, senior systems consultant with Winnipeg-based provider of collaborative tools Broadview Networks, said although SAP and Oracle’s technology doesn’t work with Office apps, that will change as Microsoft begins to reach out to third parties.

Choptain believes that companies will definitely adopt some level of UC in the next several years, and OCS will make sense for users of Microsoft Exchange. But it will still work for the non-Microsoft shop, too, just not to its fullest capacity.

He noted that since OCS is based on Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), the technology that most voIP solutions run on, systems need only support SIP, and not necessarily be Microsoft-based.

Actually, the industry needs to understand OCS as not just a communications tool, but an enabling technology to an enterprise’s business processes, said Larry LeSueur, vice-president of technology infrastructure solutions with Seattle, Wash.-based global IT consultancy Avanade Inc. “It really changes how we think about workflow, about people accessing data,” said LeSueur.

The BPM effect

In particular, vendors of business process management applications could integrate their tools with OCS to provide users see who is available to approve a document at a particular stage in the workflow. “I can integrate with their presence to say of these 15 people, here are the three that are available right now to act on that approval,” said LeSueur.

Besides highly-structured automated processes like document routing, collaboration in BPM tools allows for more ad-hoc processing and better handling of exceptions, said Theresa O’Neil, vice-president of business development with Chicago, Ill.-based business rule management vendor InRule Technology Inc. “It’s going to bring resolution to those exceptions more quickly.”

BPM vendors, said O’Neil, are already adding collaborative capabilities to their tools, but having those same capabilities extended to ubiquitous tools like Office will make it easier for companies to integrate the idea of collaboration with business process exceptions.

Furthermore, integrating a database containing staff skills and areas of expertise will help users assess who among the available staff might be the best to contact, said Greg Carter, chief technology officer with Baltimore, MD.-based BPM vendor Metastorm Inc.

“[That will] give you more and more power in how work is assigned and distributed,” said Carter. BPM tools in relation to collaborative platforms like OCS is but an example of a broader trend whereby working environments are shifting from documents on a network shared drive to a UC platform, said Stuart Charlton, enterprise architect with Mississauga, Ont.-based enterprise infrastructure provider BEA Systems Canada Inc.

“The Web is totalizing in that it’s absorbing a lot of the old mediums and bringing them together with both enterprise IT and with some of the newer infrastructure like BPM platforms.”

Actually, OCS will become the new platform just as Windows has established itself as the ubiquitous operating system, believes LeSueur. The choice whittles down to Microsoft and Cisco, he added, with the former offering a flexible and interoperable base. “It shifts the conversation from here’s another piece of your infrastructure to here’s an enabling technology that’s going to give you a more competitive advantage.”

Religious debate

It’s tricky to say whether OCS will attain the customer adoption that Microsoft expects, thinks Arnold, because it’s largely a “religious debate” that centres on whether UC should be hardware or software-based, open or proprietary. Besides, he added, enterprises are home to different network environments, and even a different dynamic between voice and data staff, where those in charge of telephony will likely steer clear of OCS.

But Arnold believes Microsoft will get its share of the UC space, although there won’t be a rush among vendors to build apps for the platform given the viability of alternative technologies, and its lack of credibility in the voice arena.

Security is probably the top most obstacle to customer adoption, he said, because of the number of interoperating applications and the exposure to the Internet — a multi-layered complexity of which IT managers and CIOs are unaware. “Once it’s all integrated on one platform, you’re dependent on that platform being bullet proof, because if it goes down, everything goes down.”

At any rate, OCS is good news for IT managers and CIOs who now have more options, said Arnold, however, evaluating unproven technologies can be tough. “The reality is unified communications is barely in the market.”