Microsoft to add more PBX features to UC suite

As expected, Microsoft will soon add more voice features to its unified communications suite, making the application more of a threat to traditional PBX makers like Nortel Networks, Cisco Systems and Avaya.

An attendant console, dial-in audio conferencing and support for single phone numbers across multiple handsets are some of the features to be added in February to Release 2 of Office Communications Server 2007, Microsoft has announced.

When OCS was unveiled a year ago, telephony manufacturers knew it was only a matter of time before the software giant would eat into deep into their businesses. That day is getting closer.

So far, there hasn’t been a rush by network and voice buyers to replace their IP-PBXs with OCS, according to Irwin Lazar, principal research director of Nemertes Reseach. Only 25 per cent of IT participants in a recent survey by his firm said OCS’s entry into unified communications has changed their telephony plans. But, he added, with R2 “some organizations may be more inclined to look at or trial it.”

The next full version of OCS will likely have a “pretty compelling” set of telephony capabilities, he said, and by 2010-2011 will be very attractive to organizations.

Yankee Group analyst Zeus Kerravala said when it first came out, OCS had about half of the capabilities of a PBX. When R2 comes out, he said, it will have 75 per cent of the features.

“If Microsoft starts to replicate PBX features, then you have to ask why do you need the traditional PBX vendor?” he asked in an interview. Many buyers, he said, won’t.

Nortel, which is deeply involved in a unified communications alliance with Microsoft which bundles the equipment maker’s communications servers with OCS, was asked for comment. However, the company said a spokesman could not be found. Bryan Rusche, a senior product manager for unified communications products at Microsoft Canada, said R2’s improvements were “relatively significant changes.”

The attendant console allows a receptionist to use OCS to completely manage calls, he said, while the dial-in audio conferencing capability does away with the need to pay for conference bridges. In the current version of OCS, the only way persons can join a conference is to be brought in by someone already in meeting.

Also added will be persistent group chat, which allows instant message users to see the entire history of a chat room conversation. This capability comes from Microsoft’s acquisition last year of Parlano.

Single number support will help people whose mobile phone has the same number as their office phone. R2 also includes Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) trunking, which allows a direct VoIP connection between an Internet telephony service provider and Office Communicator 2007 without an on-premise gateway.

Finally, R2 will include expanded APIs and integration with Microsoft Visual Studio so customers can better integrate OCS into business applications.

“With this release we’re able to take a load off of the PBX,” said Rusche. “The vision is for (OCS) to become a full unified communications server that includes all aspects of PBX functionality.”

As proof of the application’s potential, Microsoft offers Hamilton Health Sciences, a group of six Hamilton, Ont. hospitals and 10,000 staffers that has what CIO Mark Farrow says has an “outdated and failing PBX.” After a four-month pilot, OCS is being rolled out into HHS’s new buildings and in about four years will likely have entirely replaced organization’s PBX, Farrow said in an interview. Promised features coming in R2, he added – particularly the attendant console – is a prime reason why.

Yet there is also evidence that many organizations using OCS are only using a limited set of its features. Brian Bourne, president of Toronto’s CMS Consulting, a Microsoft integrator, says his firm has overseen seven or eight implementations of OCS. Only two or three are using the entire suite, he said. “There are certainly some challenges in making OCS the full PBX,” he said, citing the lack of certain features. “R2 won’t be as feature-rich as a full-blown PBX,” he added, “but it will start to cover more of the features people need.”

Where does this leave traditional PBX vendors? Even Bourne says that customers are reluctant to throw out their investment in expensive systems. Advanced call routing is still what those systems excel at, he said.

Microsoft’s Rusche said that while enterprise features will be added to OCS in the future, partners like Nortel have nothing to fear because it will still lack capabilities such as call centre functionality.

Yankee Group’s Kerravala says some vendors, such as Avaya, are covering their bets by getting closer to IBM, whose unified communications offering is around its Lotus collaboration software but is so far staying away from voice features.

Others, said Lazar, like Nortel, realize the inevitable and see their future in services and support. Microsoft is “getting closer” to being a full-fledged PBX, he said. “I still think they have a huge piece missing,” he added: “Remote site survivability. For organizations that have lots of distributed offices, there is no good solution for OCS in case the WAN link goes down. There’s no solution yet for 911 emergency services.”

And OCS users have only two choices for handsets, he said – ones that plug into a PC, or use a standard phone plus run an instance of Office Communicator on a PC. The latter is a $700 solution, he said.

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