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Wait Begins As Microsoft Dives Into Unified Communications

Technology transitions take time, and Microsoft's a relative newcomer to the market.

In introducing Microsoft's unified communications products last week, Bill Gates predicted a change in the way people work "as profound as the shift from typewriters to word processing." Uh-huh--in the same way tablet PCs were to replace pen and paper? We're still waiting.

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Microsoft released Office Communicator 2007 (its voice-data-video communications client), Office Communications Server 2007, and a 360-degree videoconferencing system called Roundtable. Dozens of partners, including SAP, introduced products and services that tie in. Under a partnership revealed earlier this year, Microsoft also is putting its software in Nortel Networks' voice-over-IP systems; they report 300 joint wins.

Gates foresees a major shift in the way people work

Photo by Paul Sakuma/AP
The mixing of voice, video, messaging, and collaboration capabilities holds great promise for the way people work, but infrastructure upgrades are required. And Microsoft isn't the obvious choice for VoIP; if anything, it has catching up to do. A crowded market of established competitors awaits Microsoft.

"I've actually been present when Bill has made the statement about the death of the PBX," says Jorge Blanco, VP of solutions marketing for Avaya. "If anybody killed it, Avaya, Cisco, and many others killed it years ago. That's not new news." Cisco Systems' unified communications business grew more than 30% last year to $2 billion; it dominates the VoIP segment.

Avaya, Cisco, and Microsoft partner Nortel are experienced at the kind of system availability and reliability required for phone calls, while Microsoft has something to prove. "Voice is the one place where the question comes up," says Kim Akers, Microsoft's general manager of unified communications marketing.

Pharmaceutical firm Sanofi Aventis looked at Siemens OpenScape two years ago, then at Cisco's Unified Communications line, but it chose Microsoft's new platform instead. "Nobody can deliver the integration with the Office tools like Microsoft can," says Rolf Hansmann, head of common service architecture and new technologies for Sanofi Aventis.

Sanofi Aventis is integrating Office Communications Server into its eLounge Web portal, where workers will be able to see presence information about colleagues and simply click to call one another. Likewise, since Microsoft's new server is integrated with Outlook and Office, Sanofi employees will be able to click to call from e-mail or documents. Office Communicator will be deployed on the company's PCs for switching among chat, phone, and video.

Still, Microsoft lacks the experience of the networking specialists. "By the time they're really ready to deliver enterprise communications, we'll have hundreds of thousands to millions of users installed," says Siemens senior VP Mark Straton.

Interoperability's another hurdle. The Session Initiation Protocol, which lets phones make calls on SIP-compliant VoIP systems, doesn't have all the features yet of business phone systems. And though Office Communications Server and Office Communicator will run on commodity hardware, they run only on Windows.

Nevertheless, with its installed base of Office users and marketing prowess, Microsoft has the potential to finally popularize unified communications. Says Gates, "Ten years from now, when people think about telephony, they'll see a movie and look at a desktop phone and think, 'Oh, yeah, we used to have one of these.'" For now, however, most companies still live in the good old days.

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