Microsoft Moves Full Speed Ahead on Messaging

Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 and the client, Office Communicator 2007, are now in live, public beta. Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 has been out for several months now. Microsoft Office Live Meeting has been available for several years. Microsoft Office RoundTable, a device that offers a 360-degree view of meeting attendees, is set to debut within the next few months. And Microsoft recently purchased Tellme Networks, a developer of speech recognition software.

All this technology leads to one inescapable conclusion: Microsoft wants messaging and collaboration to be on a par with Windows and Office. In other words, the big dog's on the porch, with the competition left yapping in a field.

It's hard to find another area within Microsoft that's producing products at a pace that can match the messaging and collaboration teams.

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Mark Levitt, VP for Collaborative Computing and the Enterprise Workplace at IDC, sums up Microsoft's messaging and collaboration efforts in an e-mail:

"Microsoft is expanding and refining its collaborative offerings, not moving away from any. Its focus on unified communications represents the bringing together of its Office Communications Server [2007] (for enterprise instant messaging and presence, IP telephony, and Web audio and video conferencing) with its Exchange Unified Messaging (for e-mail, fax and voice messaging accessible in one mailbox), which requires Microsoft Exchange and Outlook, and Office Communicator as the primary UC user interface/client."

In other words, it all works together, and one offering requires another for full functionality.

Getting Together
That sort of tight integration can be good in an all-Microsoft shop, but that's a rarity in the real world. If your company wants to step outside the Microsoft universe, however, and mix and match your messaging vendors for the right fit, you'll find it tough.

"Microsoft should have included support in the Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 client for any IP-PBX without the need for the Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 platform," states Tom Keating, a journalist who specializes in VoIP, on his VoIP blog. "What if I want to use Microsoft's client with the popular Asterisk IP-PBX and without the commercial Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 software? Can't do it."

That appears to be OK with Microsoft, which sees a huge potential market for its messaging and collaboration products, like VoIP. Last month, at VoiceCon Spring 2007, Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's Business Division, predicted that VoIP solutions will cost half of what they do today, as the technology transitions from the current hardware-centric offerings to software.

During his presentation, Raikes said that "Over time, the software-based VoIP technology built into Microsoft Office Communications Server and Microsoft Office Communicator will offer so much value and cost savings that it will make the standard telephone look like that old typewriter that's gathering dust in the stockroom."

In a similar fit of hyperbole, Raikes also claimed that within three years 100 million people will have the ability to make calls from within Microsoft Office. That, of course, assumes that everyone upgrades within that time frame, and that unified messaging takes off in a way that it hasn't so far.

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Ready to Talk
IDC's Levitt, although not making a prediction about how quickly, if ever, unified communications catches (UC) fire, says in his e-mail that Microsoft is going to pour on hundreds of gallons of fuel.

"Microsoft is serious about (UC), which includes unified messaging (UM) as well as real-time IP communications (IM, Web audio and video conferencing, IP telephony). Without UM, Microsoft's UC strategy would be dependent on partners that to date have had only limited success in convincing customers to deploy UM. Microsoft is committed to making UM more pervasive by delivering it under the Microsoft brand and as part of a broader UC solution," Levitt wrote.

Resources: Unified Communications

Besides information on Microsoft's unified communications plan right from source, check out these recent stories on several of the products mentioned in this article from the Redmond Media Group:

Of course, Microsoft has put its marketing muscle behind products before, only to see them flounder or fail. Will (UC) be a success like Office, a flop like Microsoft Bob, or somewhere in between, like MSN? Since UC is much more oriented toward business use than consumers, it's hard to say; businesses can be notoriously slow to adopt new technology at the expense of older technology that still works well.

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Is being able to leave a voice mail that's translated to text and sent to a BlackBerry a good enough reason to switch? Only time, and Microsoft's execution of this slew of new products, will tell.