Microsoft sets communication plan


Microsoft has put its stake in the ground concerning unified communications, saying it plans to integrate e-mail, instant messaging, voice and video into a single platform stretching across corporate applications and services.

The company recently laid out upgrades and a road map for its software lineup and introduced a hardware product called Office RoundTable (formerly code-named Ring Cam), a room phone for audioconferencing with a 360-degree camera for online meetings. The software, hardware and a Web conferencing service belong to a family of products built for Office 2007, which is slated to ship to corporate clients in November.

Microsoft did not announce any software but changed the name of its IM and presence software from Live Communications Server to Office Communications Server 2007.

Microsoft says Exchange Server 2007; the Office Communicator 2007 client, with a version for phones; and the Office Live Meeting 2007 Web conferencing service will be available in the second quarter of 2007. The company plans to have betas of the software by year-end.

Earlier this year, Microsoft merged its Exchange and real-time collaboration groups to form a unified communications group. The company intends to give users a single platform for real-time communications that can be integrated with traditional desktop and network applications, mobile devices and the business processes running across all three.

“This is a bold move,” says Mike Gotta, an analyst with the Burton Group. “Microsoft is focusing on the bigger game rather than cherry-pick a few features. They are talking about one big architectural domain. 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 about how to deal with federation to the real-time environment of partners. He says the potential exists to change the way corporate users think about deploying real-time communications, which are becoming increasingly important in an online world. Possible changes are already evident. Microsoft showed off Exchange’s new features earlier this month at its annual TechEd conference, demonstrating its unified messaging capabilities, which include integration of voice with e-mail, calendaring and other Exchange features. Those features include potential architectural changes to the Exchange infrastructure.

Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft’s business division, hinted at other changes, specifically in IP PBX deployments. “We do think over the next few years there will be a dramatic transformation [with IP PBX],” Raikes says. “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; 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 says there are questions from a development standpoint: “If I develop applications, does this lock me into a back-end provider?”

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

Microsoft’s focus clearly is on its software lineup. “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 its unified-communications stake in the ground, Microsoft announced improvements to its software lineup. It has added multiuser data and application sharing and video support to Communications Server, as well as deeper integration with a PBX to support advanced call features, such as letting users place calls with 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, which will have metadata extensions that will let developers add controls for presence rules to their applications. Microsoft also plans to introduce Communicator client software to integrate phones, including IP-enabled business desktop phones, with voice and video devices.

New to the lineup is Office RoundTable, which plugs into Communications Server. RoundTable provides a panoramic shot of everyone sitting at a conference table and a picture of the active speaker in a separate window on the PC.

Microsoft will add video streaming, flash support and IP-based voice capability to its online Office Live Meeting service. The company plans to introduce other services, including hosted presence and IM for businesses so users can connect a Communications Server to partners’ IM infrastructures.

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

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