Microsoft pushes unified communications though software

Unified communications through software or hardware manufacturers?

That’s the choice Microsoft suggested that network managers have to make during North American events Tuesday touting its recently-launched Office Communications Server 2007.

In Toronto, the company pulled in partners including Nortel, Bell Canada and MTS Allstream to help boost OCS’s image to reporters and industry analysts. But conspicuously absent was Cisco Systems, another partner who most observers agree will be Microsoft’s biggest competitor for enterprise customers.

“We think we’re on the verge of the next big evolution of business communications,” said Jordan Chrysafidis, Microsoft Canada’s vice-president of business and marketing. “Typically the [office communications] solutions have been largely hardware-based,” he said. But enterprise hardware-based solutions are “very, very high cost,” he insisted.

OCS’s software-based attempt to merge voice, messaging and conferencing through the ubiquitous Office productivity suite offers many benefits, he said.

Among them is giving users the choice of the right communications tool – voice, e-mail, instant messaging, conferencing – to get work done without moving through several applications, he said.

Today’s desktop phones only have limited integrated with the desktop, Chrysafidis argued. OCS integrates voice onto the desktop through Office Communicator 2007 (which includes a softphone and is available in enterprise editions of Office 2007), as well as phones made by manufacturers like Nortel.

In an interview announcing new OCS-based servers and handsets, Ruchi Prasad, general manager of Nortel’s partnership with Microsoft, declared that “we are well ahead of our competitors [making OCS-based solutions] and in a very unique position.”

The company announced Nortel Converged Office, which integrates its IP-PBX with OSC 2007; Nortel Multimedia Conferencing 5.0, a customer premise audio-visual solution; UC Integrated Branch, which integrates WAN routing, Ethernet switching and VoIP for extending unified communications to branches; and the LG-Nortel IP Phone 8500 series desksets that are optimized for OCS.

Rob Helm, director of research at Directions on Microsoft, said the software giant has a lot riding on OSC, which succeeds Live Communications Server 2005. By adding voice and other capabilities, it “takes on entirely new markets.”

“It’s Microsoft’s entry into a market for unified communications of tens of billions of dollars,” he said. Still, he said, most enterprise customers are more comfortable with hardware vendors – such as Cisco and Avaya — when it comes to communications.

“Microsoft has a pretty tough road to follow to catch up to those vendors who have been in the field for a while.”

Microsoft’s solution leverages a host of the company’s applications – Exchange for managing e-mail and IM, Outlook and on the desktop, which gives the company a foot in the door, said Helm. Voice and e-mail can be integrated into one list. Communicator can show a list of staff and their status (busy, offline, out of office), and, through a link with Active Directory, their position in the organization. With a click or two people can be contact and even added to a conference.

Because many users are familiar with Office, Chrysafidis argued, learning new unified communications functions “is not that big a leap.”

That may or may not be true. In an interview at the Toronto event, Eric Fletcher, Allstream’s senior vice-president of marketing for enterprise solutions, acknowledged that software often comes with many menus of features most users have trouble wading through. “But you’ll find the ones that work with you and they’ll be the ones you’ll use,” he said.

Allstream is enthusiastic about Microsoft’s approach. “I think the concept of consolidating the directories so you’ve got a seamless directory, eventually getting it to work in your mobile platform, will change the way we communicate,” said Fletcher. “I see it as a journey.”

Allstream was the integrator of an OSC-based beta project at the Ontario Association of Community Care Access Centres, a group which supports 14 government organizations that provide in-home health care services for 650,000 across the province, including the staff’s computer needs.

“We saw this as a good way for us to be able to move from previous versions (of Microsoft products) and meet some emerging business needs with our centres, which are distributed all over the province,” said Ken Sutcliffe, the association’s IT director, said in an interview at the Microsoft Canada event.

Among the tools his department offered association members were Microsoft’s Live Communications Server (OSC’s predecessor) and Live Meeting for collaborating in the field. However, as hosted services they were deemed not secure enough for conversations about personal and medical matters. OSC 2007 solves that by allowing organizations to do internal Web conferencing.

Sutcliffe also likes the new ability to do multi-party voice or video conferencing. “We know there are gains there,” he said of the new system.

However, Helm cautioned that Microsoft’s unified communications solution is not for small companies. “Even companies with strong IT departments are going to have to be wary because this technology cuts across areas that normally don’t work together tightly.”

Most organizations will want to work with the help of an integration firm that has expertise in Microsoft products, voice and Web conferencing, he said.

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