Microsoft's CollaborationVision Is Lofty--And Complex

Microsoft wants to take the unified communications market by storm with a slew of new products, and Cisco also eyes what it calls a $10 billion opportunity. But integrating voice, data, video, and e-mail into neat and simple packages won't be an easy task.
Some scientists at the Food and Drug Administration communicate using a combination of voice, video, and data from one place: their PCs. It was a necessary step to help them collaborate on projects, share documents, and guide each other through procedures, FDA deputy CIO Glenn Rodgers says.

It's CIOs like Rodgers that have CEOs like Microsoft's Steve Ballmer calling unified communications "very significant." This week, Microsoft will release the road map for its two-year unified communications strategy, which includes integrated applications, new partnerships, and even a Microsoft-branded video camera, called RoundTable, that has a 360-degree view and zooms in on participants in a conference room. The centerpiece of Microsoft's announcement is Office Communications Server 2007, which will replace Live Communications Server in the second quarter of next year. It will enable presence, or the ability to track the whereabouts and availability of colleagues; instant messaging across different IM platforms; and document sharing while on PC-based voice calls, among other things. The Office Communicator client is being upgraded to support these functions better.

Microsoft also will offer unified messaging capabilities in its upgraded Exchange E-mail server, due by early 2007, that were previously available only as third-party add-ons. The company is partnering with Motorola to develop a version of Office Communicator for Motorola's smart phones, and Hewlett-Packard will provide hardware devices and system-integration services for Microsoft's unified communications technologies. And Microsoft plans to integrate click-to-call into more apps, allowing speedier communications with colleagues about data within those applications.

No catnaps with this 360-degree camera

No catnaps with this 360-degree camera
People Want It
Microsoft is on to something: Many people want this stuff. In a newly completed study by InformationWeekResearch on voice over IP that surveyed 320 business technology professionals, 54% of companies using or planning to use VoIP want access to voice, video, data sharing, conferencing, and E-mail from a single desktop interface. Thirty-seven percent want presence, and 32% want applications that integrate voice communications into business and productivity software.

Microsoft and Cisco Systems could prove to be the biggest players in this market. At Cisco's annual user conference last week, CEO John Chambers pegged unified communications as a potential $10 billion business for the company, saying new collaboration tools can drive productivity and revolutionize how people communicate. Although Chambers said the two wouldn't directly compete, he took a jab at Microsoft's plans and implied Cisco coined the term. "Are we honored that they called it unified communications? We are, but that shows that we're going in the right direction," Chambers said. Other market players can't be ignored, including Avaya, IBM, and Siemens.

There's no question, however, that making all these communication methods work in harmony is a difficult promise for these vendors to keep. And for companies, getting employees and partners to use these new tools requires training and even convincing that this new way of collaborating beats using E-mail, the phone, and applications individually.

John Wade, CIO at St. Luke's Health System, sees potentially huge benefits from unified communications, like physicians miles apart from each other sharing charts and treatment tips while videoconferencing using computer-based phones. But the first step is getting the health organization's newly installed wireless VoIP system working correctly. "We're trying to crawl and walk before we go running," he says.

Lots of promises are coming from IT vendors about new and better ways of collaborating, and some businesses already are convinced there has to be better way than the status quo. But the hard part--making it all work well and on a grand scale--is yet to come.

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