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Microsoft Exec: Unified Communications Tools On Tap

Microsoft plans to roll out next year a slew of unified communications products, including unified messaging, IP call management, softphones and IP phones, audio and videoconferencing, immersive meetings, and a unified communications platform, a company executive said at a conference this week.
Microsoft is taking a software-centric approach to its unified communications strategy to enhance collaboration and enable businesses to realize faster return on investment.

That's the take of Anoop Gupta, vice president of Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, who detailed the company's vision for unified communications as well as a roadmap for products and technologies to be rolled out next year in a Tuesday keynote speech at VoiceCon Fall 2006 in San Francisco.

Unified communications technology enables workers to interact with each other -- in any location and with any device -- using voice, email, instant messaging and video. Although voice is still a key part of the strategy, Microsoft expects other forms of communication to eventually become equally important, Gupta said.

"Voice will remain critical, but other forms of communication such as video will become more important, as will bringing it all together in a seamless experience that's accessible anywhere, on any device," he said.

Microsoft plans to roll out next year a slew of unified communications products, including unified messaging, IP call management, soft phones and IP phones, audio and videoconferencing, immersive meetings, and a unified communications platform, Gupta said.

Microsoft's strategy doesn't involve just tying together different forms of communication; it's also about the ability for these communications to flow into collaboration applications such as business process management and CRM, Gupta said. "Communications need to be there with business process -- that's where the biggest ROI is," he said.

To achieve this, Microsoft is taking a software-centric approach to how unified communications capability will be delivered, Gupta said. For example, presence and availability information needs to get richer, and must go beyond simply indicating whether a user is online or not, Gupta said.

Adding location information from the user's calendar and mobile devices will go a long way toward making communications infrastructure more efficient, Gupta said. "Presence is a deep capability, not an isolated capability that doesn't integrate with infrastructure," he said.

One of the primary challenges Microsoft faces from a business communications perspective is tying together disparate communications systems such as email and voice, Gupta said. "Your communications system is no good if it only works inside your company or campus," he said.

Responsibility for integrating communications into applications has been traditionally fallen to IT staff, but long implementation times have led to slow ROI for companies. "It's a disconnected infrastructure for IT, and it can be chaotic," Gupta noted.

Unified communications platforms allow companies to deploy this functionality quickly and easily, which enables them to see ROI faster, Gupta added.

Other unified communications features include adding subject line context to phone calls, to match that of emails and instant messages, and adding videoconferencing to enable 360 degree views of meeting participants, Gupta said. "There are a lot of new capabilities we can bring," he said.

Gupta was joined onstage by Steve Slatterly, president of enterprise solutions at Nortel Networks, who discussed his company's unified communications partnership with Microsoft.

The cooperation between Nortel and Microsoft will take place around products, sales and marketing efforts, and integration services, Slattery said. "We're putting the power of 17,000 Microsoft salespeople and Nortel's sales channel to jointly drive unified communication solutions," he said.

For customers, the Nortel-Microsoft partnership will allow customers to evolve their existing infrastructure to handle unified communications without requiring a rip and replace, Gupta said.

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