VoIP Gets More Interesting As It Becomes More Mobile And Useful

Avaya, Cisco, and Microsoft showcase products intended to overcome the technology's drawbacks
While Voice Over IP is making significantinroads into the workplace, quality problems, expensive equipment, integration issues, and limited mobile capabilities have kept some companies from embracing it. Microsoft, Cisco Systems, and Avaya were among the vendors at last week's VoiceCon conference offering products that look ready to overcome those issues.

Microsoft will officially enter the VoIP market later this month with the release of beta versions of its Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007 client. These products also represent Microsoft's entry into "unified communications," where voice, E-mail, instant messaging, and videoconferencing coexist. Microsoft's Live Communications Server 2005 and Office Communicator 2005 combine IM and presence capabilities with support for peer-to-peer audio, video, and data sharing; the new versions include Web, audio-, and videoconferencing, as well as IP voice call management.

Latest VoIP Moves
Solution for Communications Enabled Business Processes enables VoIP in business apps; Lenovo to preload Avaya's VoIP features on ThinkPads
Unified Communications System 6.0 extends desktop functionality to smartphones; partners with IBM on open unified communications platform
Beta releases of VoIP server and client, Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007
Microsoft plans to use cost as a key selling point against more established VoIP vendors such as Cisco. In his keynote address, Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business division, predicted that a business VoIP system will cost half what it does now, as vendors shift from offering hardware-centric systems to software running on standard servers. Plus, users will get more phones and devices to choose from. "You're not tied to one vendor," says Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate VP of the unified communications group.

Microsoft already has a partnership with Nortel Networks to develop a platform that unifies the management and use of disparate IP communications applications and servers. The duo also is working on several communications products and services.

Avaya is taking a different tack toward making it easier for businesspeople to make phone calls from laptops. It revealed a partnership with Lenovo--its first with a computer maker--to preload advanced VoIP features on ThinkPad notebooks. Lenovo's fingerprint reader and Password Manager will work with Avaya's IP Softphone to provide user authentication and prevent unauthorized calls.

Avaya also said it will offer new capabilities that extend service-oriented architecture to VoIP, providing a framework that lets companies embed communications into the software used to run various business processes. It monitors for certain situations and then notifies the right people via mobile or desk phones, E-mail, or IM. Once notified, the person can be brought into a conference call or directed to call someone back.

Cisco is aiming to get VoIP to mobile users, rolling out version 6.0 of its Unified Communications System, which extends unified communications to some smartphones and cell phones (see story, p. 50). Cisco also has teamed with IBM on a unified communications and collaboration development platform based on open standards. This will bring new features to existing products, such as Web conferencing to IBM's Lotus Sametime and IM to Cisco IP phones. The partnership "shows that voice and data are coming together," says Charles Giancarlo, Cisco's senior VP and chief development officer.

Businesses are interested in the benefits of unified communications and VoIP. Gas exploration and production company Royal Dutch Shell is looking for ways to facilitate collaboration among its far-flung global staff. It wants to replace its large installation of PBXs from different suppliers with a VoIP platform over the next couple of years, says Johan Krebbers, group IT architect.

"Voice, virtual teaming, and real-time collaboration--we need all these to come together to share information successfully on a global level," he says. But there's still a ways to go as companies try to understand VoIP's capabilities and limitations, and as vendors try to meet their needs.

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