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Microsoft's New Office Communications Server Enters Crowded Field

With last week's release of Office Communications Server 2007 R2, Microsoft is seeking to quell concerns about its telephony expertise, broaden the scope of collaboration covered by OCS, and attract more developers to the platform. "Microsoft [posits]: We can do it all and we can also partner if that's in your best interest," is how Forrester Research analyst Elizabeth Harrell sums up the approach.

Interest in unified communications is high: Forrester estimates that 84% of large enterprises are at least at the evalu- ation stage, and 27% have begun deploying the technology. Still, most companies haven't begun embedding UC into business process applications like ERP.

By adding features that permit outside calls without the need for costly gateways and that give receptionists better call control, Microsoft hopes to close a gap with traditional telecom companies, but it risks competing directly with partner Nortel Networks. OCS 2007 R2 broadens the scope of collaboration modes with new mobile support, persistent group chat, and better audioconferencing. New APIs and Visual Studio functions simplify integrating OCS with other applications.

Microsoft has had some success: More than half of the Fortune 500 have licensed OCS. Royal Dutch Shell plans to roll out the Office Communicator client to most of its 150,000 employees within the year, and soon after will begin getting rid of conventional phones.

Service-oriented architectures may be the best way to UC-enable apps.
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While Microsoft has been pushing into traditional communications, Cisco has been pushing into Microsoft's territory, recently buying e-mail vendor PostPath and enterprise chat vendor Jabber. Cisco claims to have an end-to-end unified communications suite, from the network itself to its UC Manager communications router, and from applications like MeetingPlace to client devices. Cisco focuses on the application and IP PBX rather than on the client, where it cedes dominance to Microsoft and IBM.

IBM's approach is to provide applications and middleware, but not to get in the way of Nortel and Cisco. Its Sametime client has IM,Web conferencing, videoconferencing, and even voice capabilities. IBM claims to have 20 million users, though mostly for chat. The company expects to release its first softphone, as well as middleware to integrate Sametime with disparate IP PBX systems later this year.

Although it has its own line of UC products, Nortel has bet its success on a partnership with Microsoft--one that's seen few product releases, despite early fanfare. Even so, Nortel marketing VP Wes Durow says the two companies have more than 1,000 customers for their joint products, especially one that combines Nortel's IP PBX with OCS in one box. Durow says the partners will next address security and contact center collaboration. Nortel itself is focused on selling customers on the idea of integrating UC features with business apps. Other big players include Avaya and Siemens, which last week detailed a new mobile UC client.

The UC industry still has to work out plenty of kinks. For example, while vendors use standards such as SIP and SMPL, real-world examples of product interoperability are rare. These are still the early days of unified communications, but its promise finally seems within reach.

chart: Top 5 UC Business Goals