Microsoft gears up for communications-server launch

Microsoft Corp. will launch a frontal assault on the corporate telecommunications market when it launches Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 later this month, but it plans to win over most customers bit by bit over the next few years.

At its San Francisco launch event for OCS on Oct. 16, the software vendor will also announce the availability of new devices that can be used with the unified communications software, said Kim Akers, general manager of unified communications at Microsoft, in an interview Wednesday. At the same time, Microsoft will line up device, infrastructure and software partners that are part of the "ecosystem" the company will promote as giving it an edge in combined voice, e-mail, text and video offerings.

The Office Communicator 2007 client and Office Live Meeting will also debut at the event, which will feature Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates.

OCS will bring Microsoft into a fast-growing market for platforms that put all forms of enterprise communication in one place. It will also put the software vendor in competition with dominant networking vendor Cisco Systems Inc. as well as a host of telecommunications switch suppliers.

Unified communications is intended to let people make calls from within software applications on a PC and easily start up collaborative sessions, such as videoconferences, from many locations. Microsoft envisions a $45 billion total market for the technologies this year.

One tool to help users get the most out of Microsoft's unified communications technology is the RoundTable, a small tabletop device with a panoramic camera and a directional microphone that can find the current speaker in a meeting. Microsoft previewed it earlier this year.

The RoundTable represents Microsoft's approach to videoconferencing, which has been a major focus for Cisco since the launch of its TelePresence high-definition meeting systems late last year. Both companies think videoconferencing has a big future, Akers said. But while Cisco is going after the top 20% of the market with its 65-inch plasma displays and specialized furniture, Microsoft is targeting the other 80% with a less-expensive system, she said.

"There are a lot of activities that happen inside of an organization that don't require something as rich as TelePresence," she said.

Cisco officials acknowledged that TelePresence still is being used primarily for high-level executive meetings, but they said the company has started to see a second wave of sales of the technology to organizations that are rolling out systems for lower-level employees. Cisco executives made these comments during a webcast on Wednesday.

Also coming from Microsoft on Oct. 16 is a portable conference phone, also previewed earlier this year, and devices coming from hardware partners, Akers said. PBX vendors and independent software vendors will also be on hand to talk about the interoperability of their offerings with OCS, she said.

Working with PBXs will be critical to Microsoft's plans. OCS adds voice over IP to the messaging features Microsoft already brought together in Live Communications Server. But the company doesn't expect organizations to immediately rip out traditional phone switches to start relying on Microsoft for all their phone calls.

Most organizations upgrade their messaging and voice systems separately, and this is key to Microsoft's customer migration strategy. Enterprises can start using OCS for functions such as presence, instant messaging and collaboration -- while keeping their current phone systems for voice calls, Akers said. Along the way, OCS can be integrated with a PBX so that, in some cases, employees may get calls ringing on both their PC softphones and their desktop phones. Eventually, most enterprises plan to migrate to VoIP, but they will be able to make that decision separately from the OCS purchase, as part of their telecommunications upgrade paths, she said.

OCS became available in a public beta test in March. So far, the beta software has been downloaded 80,000 times and Microsoft has delivered 170,000 packages of it on discs, Akers said.

Akers acknowledged Microsoft will continue to compete with Cisco and other telecommunications vendors, despite the fact that Cisco Chairman and CEO John Chambers and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made pledges to cooperate earlier this year. Engineers from both companies are working together to ensure interoperability, she said.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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