10:13 PM

Analysis: How Real Are Microsoft's Live Video, Voice?

A Microsoft executive this week gave the first public demonstration of a PC running the Live Mail client, during which he initiated a video call by clicking on an icon in the software's contact list. Although he was clear that the tools are still in beta, the demo was limited all around.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The way companies are rolling out beta products these days, you're never quite sure what's real anymore.

Such was the case at Microsoft's presentation here at the Spring 2006 VON show Thursday afternoon, when the software giant showed -- sort of -- some in-development video- and voice-over-IP capabilities for its Windows Live Mail and Windows Live Messenger platforms, which are both also still in beta stage. Microsoft also said that Philips and Uniden will offer USB-connected cordless phones that can make calls from a PC to another PC over an IP network, or from a PC to regular phone lines, due out sometime later this year.

Microsoft vice president Blake Irving gave a demonstration that featured what he said "was the first time in public" that the company showed a PC running the Live Mail client initiating a video call by clicking on an icon in the software's contact list. However, the call was made to another Microsoft employee somewhere else in the San Jose Convention Center, perhaps not the boldest test of the product's ability to cross the public Internet.

Another part of the demonstration, designed to show the same software's ability to connect to a regular phone number that was highlighted in a Microsoft search result, failed to connect, leaving the audience to guess if and when the feature will actually be operable. Irving was also unclear on how far into the PSTN the service will reach and who will pay for the calls. The service will likely be limited in reach since the calls need to be in an area serviced by Verizon, who is partnering with Microsoft in the service, according to a Microsoft press release.

Irving also showed the audience models of the Uniden and Philips cordless phones that he said will be able to plug into PCs via a USB port, and enable PC-to-PC conversations or PC-to-regular phone conversations via Microsoft's Windows Live Messenger software.

Irving, however, did not demonstrate the phones in actual use, and did not estimate what their cost might be. After his talk, he said that the delivery date for the phones would be "this summer."

While the exact nature, cost, availability and performance of the services Irving demonstrated Thursday are still anyone's guess, what's not debatable is the growth in user demand for voice and video communications via PC platforms, Irving said. Microsoft, which currently offers video talk and regular voice communications via its MSN Messenger platform, said it hosted 1.9 billion minutes of voice and video communications in January, with 1.1 billion minutes in video talk and 800,000 minutes in voice.

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