Microsoft Launches Long-Awaited Unified Communications Package

After months of anticipation, Microsoft Corp. officially unveiled its unified communications software Tuesday, which gives users interactive communications options and presence information within the context of Microsoft Office and beyond. It also will save users 20 percent to 30 percent in costs over more traditional voice systems, the company said, while bolstering productivity.

The software suite was showcased at a launch event in San Francisco. After someone with a Microsoft-branded Gibson guitar (the company is a MS customer) opened the event with an instrumental performance, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates took to the stage to discuss magic.

Whats this all about? he asked rhetorically in his keynote. Microsoft is all about the magic of software taking software and letting people be more productive and creative. Today we are taking the magic of software and applying it to phone calls. He noted that the new software takes the phone call far beyond what one typically considers a call: The PBX has been in its own world and untouched by the magic of software. So that central software innovation is being brought to the business telephone experience.

The Facts

Taken together, the software announced Tuesday delivers VoIP, video, instant messaging, conferencing and presence within the applications people already know. Microsofts entrée into the world of unified communications has been underway for some time with the launch of various VoIP packages and conferencing/collaboration platforms, but the company officially tied everything together with the launch of the Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, Microsoft Office Communicator (which is the client software) and Microsoft RoundTable, a $3,000 video conferencing device that has a 360-degree camera that captures a panoramic view of meeting participants, tracks the speaker and can record meetings. The software giant also announced a new version of Microsoft Office Live Meeting and an update to Microsoft Exchange Server 2007.

We can look around the office and say theres been a lot of change that has taken place, Gates said. Every 10 years or so what you think about the personal computer has been very different, for instance. He noted the evolution from DOS to GUI-based systems to the Internet, and noted the parallel path the mobile phone has taken from briefcase to credit card-sized handsets, with ever-higher processing power. But office phone pretty much the same, he explained. It has lots of buttons, and you say wow, I wonder who uses those buttons? Its so opaque and you dont like dropping a phone call, so people dont use the features. So it really jumps out as the element in our life of rich communications that needs to be changed. The phone call is one thing one thing not yet pulled in and subject to the hardware and software revolution.

Live Demonstration

Jeff Raikes, president of the Microsoft Business Division, talked about dialing blind, phone tag, voice mail jail and disconnected communications during his keynote, noting that the average worker spends 37 minutes per week dealing with voice mail, which adds up to 30 hours per year of lost productivity. We want to put identity and presence at the core, he said. I dont want to get in touch with your phone number; I want to get in touch with you.

A demonstration by Eric Swift, senior director for unified communications at Microsoft, showed how exactly the Microsoft software aims to change all that. The scenario was one of a salesperson on the road, and he began with calling into the headquarters system. A female disembodied voice said, Youre connected to Microsoft Exchange. After saying his name, entering his PIN and pressing pound, he used interactive voice commands e-mail, voice mail, main menu etc. to have e-mail read to him, listen to voicemail and schedule a calendar item. Continuing the scenario, Swift showed how Communicator Mobile, available on Windows Mobile devices, provides presence information and contact information, with click-to-call capabilities.

Swift also showed how someone working remotely with a laptop, wireless connection, headset and Web cam can fully leverage the UC functionalities. From within Microsoft Exchange a user can see presence information and send an IM from Exchange. The IM subject line is picked up automatically from e-mail, and a link is included that the recipient can click on to read the original e-mail in question. Next, a user can click to call from within an IM conversation, connecting via a softphone on the laptop, and he or she can conference in third parties by dragging and dropping names from a buddy list with presence. The participants can also add one-click video to the multiparty call thanks to the Web cam. People can be disconnected from the call with a right-click.

Additionally, Swift showed how the UC capabilities are integrated into Word document, PowerPoints and spreadsheets; if the mouse hovers over names that are in a buddy list, it will show presence information and provides click-to-action. The company said the software will also integrate with upcoming versions of Microsoft Dynamics ERP products and the Microsoft CRM release due later this year, and will be able to integrate with third-party applications via SIP.

Throughout it all, the ability to reach coworkers, customers, partners, vendors and others intelligently by using presence to determine where and how to reach the appropriate person was the hallmark of the demonstration.

The goal is to improve productivity while decreasing cost, said Gates. One in three knowledge workers have successfully transferred a phone call, the most basic functionality you can think of. Even fewer are successful at a conference call. This takes uses the relationships between people, information as to who has access to what and other ideas that are mainstream in Active Directory on PC side. Now the ability for people to do new things is larger.

With the digitization of the economy, we have digital records about customers and companies, Gates said. When they call, that information should pop up on the screen, so as the call is passed around, the information should be passed around too.

The Ecosystem

Raikes predicted that within three years more than 100 million people will be able to click to communicate, at a 50 percent less cost. Helping to meet that goal, he said, are the more than 50 partner announcements made Tuesday in conjunction with the Microsoft OCS launch. Notably, Nortel Networks confirmed pending availability of five software-based solutions and applications to enhance OCS as part of the Innovative Communications Alliance. Nortel also confirmed it is on track to more than double the number of OCS-certified engineers in the UC systems integration practice. Ericsson announced the Ericsson Enterprise Mobility Gateway, which will be built on VoIP call management in OCS to bring office communications to any mobile device. Mitel Networks Corp. meanwhile announced plans to develop a software-based solution that leverages OCSs VoIP call management capabilities to meet the specialized telephony needs of SMBs in vertical markets. Conferencing leader Tandberg also announced its plans to build a video- and Web-conferencing solution incorporating Microsoft unified communications software, and SAP will build presence and click to communicate functionality into Duet, the joint product it developed with Microsoft to allow users to tap SAP software via Microsoft applications. Now you can see rich presence and SAP info side by side in the Office suite, said Raikes, so you have critical information at a glace.

Other partners include:

Systems integrators. Seven-hundred, ninety-three partners have achieved Microsofts UC Specialization in less than four months since Microsoft opened the program, it said.

Independent software vendors, which announced plans to incorporate presence and click-to-communicate features from Microsofts unified communications platform into their software applications.

Phone and device manufacturers. Seven manufacturers announced global availability of 15 new Microsoft UC-qualified phones and devices. Also, Microsoft is working closely with more than 15 strategic partners to develop new UC-enabled endpoints including handsets, wireless phones, Web cams and laptops.

Microsoft also unveiled Unified Communications Open Interoperability, a telephony system qualification program, to give customers the assurance that Microsoft unified communications software works with their telephony systems.

Microsoft was touting its customers, too. Gibson Guitar Corp., Global Crossing, LOccitane, Quanta Computer USA Inc., Sanofi-Aventis, The Shaw Group Inc., Virgin Megastores and Volvo Group were among the customers that joined the event to discuss the positive impact of Microsoft technology on their business.

Microsoft Corp.

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