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.
- By Lauren Gibbons Paul
- February 01, 2007
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."
Most Microsoft Unified Communications-enabled
solutions are scheduled to ship in mid-2007.
Unified Messaging, messaging and communications
software with unified inbox, including e-mail,
voice mail and faxing functionality
Office Communications Server 2007
SIP-based, real-time communication platform
with UM capabilities, hub for Unified Communications
solutions developed by partners
Office Live Meeting
service designed to optimize collaboration
Office Communicator 2007
Communications client that works with Office
Communications Server 2007 to deliver a presence-based,
enterprise VoIP " soft phone"
Audio-video collaboration device with a
360-degree camera, combined with Office
Communications Server 2007, RoundTable extends
the meeting environment across multiple
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
"[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,"
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."
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."
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
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  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
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 InformationUC 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