Microsoft previews unified communications platform

There’s more than a little bit of spaceship to the profile.

The Microsoft RoundTable device has a sleek, round base with a stem rising from it. The stem holds five tiny mirrors pointed and five cameras in the base, providing a 360-degree view for teleconferencing. The five pictures are stitched together seamlessly and presented as a window in teleconferencing software, while another window tracks the active speaker in the conference.

It’s one of 15 devices Microsoft showed off in Toronto and at its Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) in Las Vegas last month that are the first certified for use on Microsoft’s unified communications platform. The devices include IP phones and laptops and monitors with embedded audio and video, with the first devices shipping in July. Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007 are available in public beta.

Microsoft designed the software to be compatible with phones already on the market. The new qualification program is meant to assure buyers that devices will work out of the box with Microsoft’s unified communications products.

In order to qualify for the certification, handsets must include wideband audio support, comply with a wide range of VOIP codecs and include specific user interface elements, said Eric Swift, senior director of unified communications product management for Microsoft.

Some of the new phones connect directly to a USB (Universal Serial Bus) port so that mobile workers can bring the phone with them and use it along with their laptop to access features typically only support on desk phones, like call forwarding and conferencing.

“We’re looking to ignite partner innovation to bring software economics to what has been proprietary,” said Swift. Microsoft hopes that the communications software and the qualification program will make it easier for hardware developers to create innovative new phone products in a phone industry that he describes as remaining stagnant for many years.

Microsoft’s Office Communications Server competes with VOIP products from networking giants like Cisco Systems Inc. and Avaya Inc. Microsoft hopes to establish an edge against them by integrating its server with widely used products such as Exchange 2007 and enabling unified services.

Having a number of communications identities — business phone, cell phone, e-mail, pager, instant messenger ID, etc. — makes us more accessible, but it also complicates the issue of how best to get hold of someone at any given time, said Bryan Rusche, unified communications product manager with Microsoft Canada. Unified communications aims at gathering these identities into one interface, using a presence icon familiar to instant messaging users to indicate how best to get in contact.

The presence icon can be incorporated into line-of-business applications through APIs in the Microsoft .Net application development platform, Rusche said. Users can cross modes of communication, responding to an e-mail message by making a IP phone call by right-clicking, for example, Rusche said.

While there’s a lot of potential for unified communications, we’re three to five years away from finding it commonplace in the enterprise, said Jayanth Angl, research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group, headquartered in London, Ont.

“To date, we’ve seen different aspects of unified communications being deployed, things like IP telephony, unified messaging and the basic presence capabilities that have been built into different instant messaging clients,” Angl said. “But really it’s something that today a lot of enterprises are just learning about and are trying to see where this can fit into their business.”

According to a study by Nemertes Research, businesses say they are interested in unified communications but still face some of the same obstacles that prevented them from adopting VOIP a few years ago. While interviews with 120 IT executives reveal that 79 per cent of respondents either already use or are planning to use unified communications, but 60 per cent say their collaboration and communications staffs are separate, according to the study’s author Irwin Lazar, a principal research analyst with Nemertes.

“We had some say instant messaging was being rolled out [via Microsoft Live Communications Server] by their e-mail and Exchange groups, but their telecom group didn’t know about it,” Lazar says. The idea of unified communications is to blend voice, video, instant messaging and conferencing with presence, collaboration, messaging and calendaring, but that requires multiple groups to co-operate, he says. So far only 10 per cent of businesses have their IT departments structured to handle collaboration effectively, the study results say.

Another hurdle is justifying the cost of implementing unified communications, he says. “You can understand some of the benefits of collaboration, for example, but it’s hard to put numbers around it,” he says. So even if they can show collaboration would save employees an hour a week, there is no guarantee that would translate into increased productivity, respondents said in interviews for the study.

A call agent talking to a customer could use unified communications to conference in a subject-matter expert to close a sale, for example, but that possibility doesn’t necessarily loosen purse strings to implement a unified communications project. “They understand the value of mobility and collaboration, but it’s hard to demonstrate the actual [dollar] value,” he says.

Up to 75 per cent of those interviewed say they are aware of Microsoft efforts in collaboration with Office Communications Server, but they still have reservations about relying on Microsoft for all elements of unified communications, Lazar says.

“Enterprises are comfortable with Microsoft as an uber-Buddy List for instant messaging, but less so with their phone system,” he says. “That’s something they don’t have much interest in.” They prefer to rely on a traditional telecom provider for VOIP and use middleware to blend it with instant messaging and presence, he says.

Other results from the study say that use of desktop videoconferencing has grown to 30 per cent, up eight per cent over last year’s study, but businesses still have major reservations. Deployments so far are limited within companies. There is no good argument that it improves productivity and IT executives worry about demand for network bandwidth if desktop video were widely adopted across their companies, Lazar says.

Using IP for trunking of room-based videoconferencing is gaining popularity, he says, because there are clear savings using IP links rather than ISDN. High-end telepresence systems are being evaluated by 23 per cent of respondents and another 28 per cent have plans to deploy it, he says. That is because many of these multinational firms can pay off the systems if they shave just three percent from their international travel budgets, he says.

In using instant messaging, most respondents have implemented a formal corporate IM platform and block all others, he says. This is because they want to be able to scan for and block IM-borne attacks and they have other security concerns as well.

For instance, employees using non-corporate IM to transact business could have professional contacts stored within their private IM that the business could not keep and pass on to their successors if they leave the company. The company would also lose the ability to store records of IM traffic that regulators might require it to keep, he says.

VOIP is part of unified communications, and even though VOIP is becoming more mainstream, the main reason for adopting it is still cost savings, particularly in call centres, Lazar says. Enabling call agents to work from home and having the ability to integrate applications with calls can demonstrably save money. Most VOIP projects still start off as a way to upgrade call centers because there is a rapid return on investment, he says.

The Nemertes study, “Real-Time Collaboration” is based on interviews over the last three months of 2006. 071937

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