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Microsoft Banks On Partners, Interoperability For Unified Communications

The company augments its Office Communications Server with improved videoconferencing and contact center technology.

The keyword for unified communications is interoperability. Without it, the jumble of different phone systems, conferencing applications and instant messaging applications inside most companies remains just that, a group of unconnected technologies.

That's a message Microsoft hopes to hone this week as the company forwards its effort to turn its Office Communications Server (OCS) into a real software platform for business collaboration by announcing partnerships on videoconferencing and contact center technology.

Adding to a growing list of partnerships that notably includes a co-development deal with Nortel first announced last year, Microsoft announced it would partner with Polycom, Tandberg, and Aspect Software on videoconferencing and call center interoperability. According to Frost & Sullivan and Nemertes Research, Microsoft's OCS now works with 74% of all videoconferencing systems and 90% of all telephony systems.

"The key here is to build on standards that are broadly used with our customers and find ways to create great software that brings them greater value by being interoperable," Microsoft business division president Jeff Raikes said in an interview, referencing both Microsoft's partnerships and the fact that Microsoft employs the standard Session Initiation Protocol in its communications products.

On Tuesday, Microsoft and Aspect Software announced that Aspect would integrate the next version of its Unified IP call center software with OCS to create a combined Microsoft-Aspect unified communications server and call center suite. The integration with OCS' presence capabilities will bring new functionality to the call center, for example allowing call center agents to instantly find and consult experts to handle tough customer service calls that go beyond the scope of the call center's expertise.

"More than 10% of all calls are not resolved in a contact center and that instantly stymies the prospect of first time resolution in any query, but unified communications, messaging and presence dovetail perfectly to what we want to do in the contact center," Aspect CEO Jim Foy said in an interview. "Now, when agents want to link directly to somewhere else in the enterprise, they can link directly."

The next versions of the integrated products will go further, integrating IP-based automatic call distribution and the capability to allow customers to communicate with customer service via phone, instant messages, e-mail or even conferencing software. Nortel and Microsoft have also announced integration between Nortel's IP call center products and Microsoft's OCS.

Raikes framed Aspect's commitment to building products that integrate tightly with OCS as recognition that Microsoft's strong position in business software platforms and applications can intertwine unified communications with business processes. "Other players forget that developers are not looking for yet another development environment," he said.

On Monday, Polycom and Tandberg announced they'll both make their videoconferencing systems work with OCS and Office Communicator, Microsoft's unified communications client application. That means companies and employees using Polycom or Tandberg systems for videoconferencing will be able to talk to others who are using Office Communications Server and Office Communicator.

Among the other companies that have a relationship on unified communications with Microsoft is Avaya. "Interoperability is increasingly evolving into what I'd describe as integration," Avaya CEO Lou D'Ambrosio said in an interview last week. "We're spending more and more time doing joint marketing and sales calls, looking at ways to integrate different technology elements, like presence, for different organizations."

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