Preaching Convergence

Microsoft is finally getting real about a one-stop strategy for e-mail, voice mail, IM and Web conferencing -- and that's creating plenty of opportunities for partners.

When Bill Vollerthum got a call from Microsoft last March asking whether he wanted to be one of 15 companies on the Partner Advisory Group for Microsoft's soon-to-be-announced Unified Communications (UC) strategy, he found it hard to suppress his glee.

After all, Vollerthum's company, Enabling Technologies Corp., a Gold Certified Partner, had years of experience with conventional PBX-based telephony and had dabbled in voice/data convergence. Getting the early scoop on Microsoft's UC plans would position Vollerthum to be one of the first partners aboard the official UC train.

"I was very excited. I saw that this could be a very positive revenue stream for us going forward," says Vollerthum, president and CEO of the Glen Arm, Md., company. Things moved quickly after Microsoft publicly unveiled its UC products and vision in June 2006. Enabling Technologies has worked on five beta adoptions of Exchange Server 2007 Unified Messaging (UM), which gives users a single identity for access to voice, fax and e-mail data from the office and the road. It also allows them to manage their e-mail, calendars and personal contacts by telephone.

So far, "the product is living up to the hype," says Vollerthum. "It has been unbelievably stable. We're seeing a real buzz in the marketplace about this product."

Exchange Server 2007 was released to manufacturing in December; other products under the UC umbrella are slated for release in mid-2007. In a public Executive E-mail message in June 2006, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates predicted that such Unified Communications innovations will "dramatically streamline the way we communicate at work and stay in touch with friends and family at home."

Product Pipeline

Most Microsoft Unified Communications-enabled solutions are scheduled to ship in mid-2007.

Scheduled Ship Date*
Exchange Server 2007

Unified Messaging, messaging and communications software with unified inbox, including e-mail, voice mail and faxing functionality

Q4 2006**

Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007

SIP-based, real-time communication platform with UM capabilities, hub for Unified Communications solutions developed by partners

Q2/Q3 2007

Microsoft Office Live Meeting
Conferencing service designed to optimize collaboration and training
Q2/Q3 2007
Microsoft Office Communicator 2007
Unified Communications client that works with Office Communications Server 2007 to deliver a presence-based, enterprise VoIP " soft phone"
Q2/Q3 2007
Microsoft Office RoundTable

Audio-video collaboration device with a 360-degree camera, combined with Office Communications Server 2007, RoundTable extends the meeting environment across multiple locations

Q2/Q3 2007

Source: Microsoft * All dates refer to calendar year **Released to manufacturing December 2006

Though Microsoft didn't invent the concept, UC/UM is a rather revolutionary approach. The idea is giving people one way to communicate, for work and for play, that transcends the current pitfalls we all put up with on a daily basis. The classic, simple example is calling a colleague about an urgent matter. You get her voice mail, so you leave a message. Then you send an e-mail. Next, you try her cell phone. All to no avail.

The UM aspect of UC provides a single identity across all modes and devices, greasing the wheels of communication, at least to those with whom you want to communicate. So, using the previous example, you wouldn't waste time e-mailing your colleague because you'd see at a glance that she isn't online. When you dialed her work number, your call would automatically forward to her cell phone (assuming that you're on her list of high-priority contacts) and, within moments, you should be speaking with her. (Embedded business rules allow you to prioritize calls -- such as those from your boss or best client -- and to indicate your presence, or immediate availability, to some people but not others.)

Another example: You're having an instant-messaging (IM) exchange with a co-worker. During the discussion, you realize you need to escalate to a phone call. Thanks to integrated VoIP telephony, you could initiate the call right in the IM client. Then you could bring in another client or colleague and review PowerPoint slides together, thanks to integrated Web-conferencing capabilities.

"[Unified Communications] is about in-context transitions that enable productivity," says Michael Khalili, Unified Communications product manager for Microsoft. "It's about breaking down the walls between voice mail, fax and e-mail. It's about choosing the tool that's the most appropriate for the context."

Too Many Devices, Too Little Time
In speaking about Microsoft's Unified Communications strategy in June 2006, Microsoft Business Division President Jeff Raikes quoted research indicating that the average organization has 6.4 different types of communications devices and 4.8 different communications applications per user. As the number of devices and applications grows, of course, productivity is likely to decline. Unified Messaging to the rescue!

People used to have to have multiple devices and applications because of the systems' limitations, says Marc Sanders, group product manager for Microsoft Unified Communications. "Now, we're putting people in control of their systems. It's about productivity and convenient access and faster response times."

Microsoft's UC strategy is closely linked to its "People-Ready Business" approach, which aims to amplify business results through software that empowers employees. "There's a direct correlation between a company's aptitude for collaboration and communication and its resulting business performance," Raikes said during his keynote.

Unified Communications entails converging e-mail, IM, VoIP, and audio/video/Web conferencing into an intuitive experience that's integrated with the business applications -- such as Microsoft Office -- and business processes that employees use every day. The resulting environment is the "new world of work" that Gates referred to in his June 2006 message.

Unified Communications Lineup
Two products are at the heart of Microsoft's UC strategy: Exchange Server 2007 and Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007, according to Khalili. Exchange Server handles the asynchronous store-and-forward communications, while OCS takes care of real-time communications such as IM, voice and voice conferencing. If the other party in the live communication doesn't respond, the communication becomes asynchronous and is handed from OCS back to Exchange. Other forthcoming Microsoft products contain UM applications such as enhanced meeting capabilities and "soft phones," software that uses Internet technology to make calls.

Microsoft executives have been quick to emphasize the important role to be played by what Raikes calls the "broad partner ecosystem" that will use OCS as a platform to add UC capabilities to other applications.

Khalili envisions several scenarios for partner involvement. First, systems integrators that, like Enabling Technologies, have telephony experience will be in high demand as companies migrate to Exchange Server 2007. "There is tremendous opportunity around the deployment of these systems," he says.

Integrators that have done other Microsoft implementations would do well to gain the skills needed to play in the UC world. "We have partners that are having extensive success with SharePoint and Office 2007 deployments. Our UC strategy allows them to integrate UC into those platforms," says Sanders. "[Partners] can expand their competency and add in the advanced infrastructure expertise. That gives them the chance to be Exchange deployment partners in addition to being a desktop solution partner. They can have a deeper exchange with the customer."

The Competitive Landscape

Microsoft has never been afraid of moving onto turf already populated by other industry heavyweights, and its approach to Unified Communications is no different, according to Irwin Lazar, principal analyst for Nemertes Research Inc. in Chicago.

Microsoft's chief competitors in this space: Cisco Systems Inc. and IBM Corp./Lotus, says Lazar. Cisco's Unified Communicator client competes directly with Microsoft's Office Communicator. Meanwhile, Lotus Notes (now owned by IBM), which pioneered group collaboration, now has Unified Communications features.

But Lazar doesn't view Unified Communications as a serious horse race. "It's not going to be a winner-take-all," he says, noting that many companies will use Microsoft desktop, IM and Web-conferencing products, "but will want to integrate that into their Cisco telephony system." Getting corporate America to accept Microsoft as a telephony expert will be a harder, though not impossible, sell. Time will tell just how well Microsoft can demonstrate its chops in telephony.

So far, Lazar thinks Microsoft has done an excellent job of educating the market on its Unified Communications strategy. "[Microsoft has] gotten people talking. [It has] shown people what is possible," he says. "[The company has] a chasm to cross to get an enterprise to consider a Microsoft telephony system, but [it] will make it in some cases," particularly among smaller organizations. -- LGP

The ROI of UC
Many companies may have been planning to put off upgrading to Exchange Server 2007. But their plans may change when they see what UC can do for their businesses. The most obvious benefit: server consolidation. Vollerthum says many of his early adopter customers were able to go from separate servers for voice mail, e-mail and fax service down to one that can handle all three functions. That capability makes administration easier and, over time, reduces hardware costs.

Replacing the conventional PBX-based phone system in favor of VoIP is an obvious source of savings, though some companies may be reluctant to do a wholesale migration due to service-quality concerns. Exchange Server 2007 runs on a 64-bit processor, potentially boosting throughput enough to get past those concerns.

Increased productivity of peripatetic knowledge workers is another key selling point. Unisys Corp., another Gold Certified Partner and member of the UM partner-advisory group, has shown clients in vertical industries such as financial services. For example, an investment bank is looking at implementing unified messaging for bond-desk traders.

Traditionally, those traders spent their days with phones crammed to their ears while shouting at banks of computer screens. With UM, "they can use IM to communicate back and forth with upward of 25 buyers" rather than just four or five, says Peter Tripp, vice president of global outsourcing and infrastructure services for Unisys in Blue Bell, Pa. "Then the seller on the desk would hit a button on the IM session and the buyer and broker's phones would ring so they could confirm the transaction" by voice, as per Securities and Exchange Commission regulations. "This is a sales manager that says, 'I can increase my brokers' productivity by 30 percent? Sold,'" says Tripp. "That's the stuff we're interested in."

The Partner Perspective

Time will tell whether Microsoft's Unified Communications (UC) play lives up to Bill Gates' freewheeling vision of reinventing how people reach each other at work, at home and from the road -- and what benefits Microsoft partners can expect to reap as a result. If your line of business meshes in any way with the UC strategy, you're likely to find yourself climbing aboard the "UC Express."

If you weren't one of the elite few tapped last winter to be part of Microsoft's UC group, don't despair. Most UM products haven't yet shipped and there's still plenty of time to put together your own company's UC plan.

Where to start? First, read up on Microsoft's new UC products and decide which best fit your company's profile. The next step, says Microsoft's Khalili: "Begin engaging with your partner contacts at Microsoft to get plugged into the machine."

Because telephony requires a specialized skill set, it may make sense for consultants and integrators to consider partnering with other companies that have demonstrated track records in those areas. "It can be tough to develop these skills from the ground up," says Enabling Technologies' Vollerthum. "It may make more sense to partner with a company that already has the skills." Meanwhile, keep an eye on the rest of the field (see "The Competitive Landscape" ).

In any case, Vollerthum says, UC is the real deal. "We believe this is the next big messaging app for the next three years," he says. "We're betting the company on it." -- LGP

Hardware and Software Opportunities
Beyond systems integration and implementation, the field is wide open for ISVs and hardware vendors to leverage the Microsoft UC platform. "Both Exchange [Server 2007] and OCS [2007] have a set of APIs that allow for integration with a wide number of applications," says Khalili. "We'll see a lot of real-time communications and presence integrated into traditional applications."

RADVision Inc., a Fair Lawn, N.J., videoconferencing solution provider and Gold Certified Partner, plans to integrate its Click to Meet product line with Microsoft UC technology, creating a single platform for audio/video/Web conferencing. Bob Romano, vice president of marketing for RADVision, thinks there are great opportunities for channel partners that provide consulting services for companies that want to do this.

Beating Microsoft to the punch, Objectworld Communications Corp. two years ago created Unified Messaging software called Unified Communications Server. This product allows companies to replace their PBX phone systems with VoIP with UM capabilities on Microsoft Exchange platforms. David Levy, president and CEO of Objectworld, a Gold Certified Partner based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, doesn't regret getting into a market on which Microsoft has now set its sights.

"We've shown Exchange Server 2007 working with Unified Communications Server. We fully agree with and foresaw Microsoft's vision in this area," says Levy. He adds that Objectworld's offering is a good choice for customers who want to get up and running on UM as soon as possible.

More Information

UC at Work: Exchange Server 2007
Microsoft cites the following benefits from the new unified-messaging capabilities in Exchange Server 2007:

Less wasted time. Users can quickly send, receive and find information no matter what form it was delivered in and no matter where they are.

One inbox. Exchange Server 2007 delivers all e-mail, voice mail, calendar data and fax messages into users’ inboxes. Users can sort, manage and act on multiple message types without switching between applications or systems.

Anywhere access. Exchange UM lets uses access communications from familiar clients like Microsoft Office Outlook, a variety of mobile devices and ordinary telephones.

Reduced costs. Integrated UM systems allow site and server consolidation, reducing the total number of servers required to provide voice mail and fax service. Consolidation can dramatically lower maintenance and upkeep costs.

Foundation for unified communications. The combination of e-mail, voice mail and fax can be augmented with presence, IM and real-time conferencing capability to expand the ways in which users can share information and communicate. -- LP