Microsoft details unified communications road map

Microsoft Corp. Monday announced a unified communications product road map, demonstrating voice, video and messaging capabilities that it expects to ship in the first half of next year.

Jeff Raikes, president of the Microsoft Business Division, described various functions that can create a single identity for users who want to work across a number of communications modes. The Microsoft applications will work atop a company's Internet Protocol-based communications base.

Among the products Raikes announced for the second quarter of 2007 was Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, which is Microsoft's new name for its Live Communications Server. It will include Voice over IP (VOIP) call management, as well as audio-, video- and Web-conferencing and instant messaging communication with and across software applications and devices.

Also in the second quarter of 2007, Microsoft plans to release its Office Communicator 2007, a unified communications client that works with Communications Server 2007 to provide enterprise VOIP through a softphone. Microsoft also announced Office Live Meeting, which includes audio and video capabilities for conferencing from a PC and is due out at about the same time.

Raikes took part in a demonstration via Webcast showing off the Office RoundTable, a piece of hardware that looks like a desktop lamp and stands about two feet high. The RoundTable is actually an audio-video collaboration device with a video camera at the top that offers a 360-degree view. The device will allow panoramic views of everyone in a conference room, and will be released by mid-year 2007.

He also touted a small handheld phone with a message screen that displays text of the subject of an incoming call based on input from the party on the other end. No other details about the phone were immediately available.

Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 is also expected for release in late 2006 or early 2007, and Microsoft Speech Server 2007 will be available in late 2006, Microsoft said in a statement Monday.

Microsoft's unified communications strategy involves partnerships with other communications vendors and includes plans for IP desktop phones that run Communicator software. The vendors named were Polycom Inc., LG-Nortel Co. Ltd. and Thomson Telecom. Microsoft also announced interoperability with or partnerships with Hewlett-Packard Co., Siemens and Motorola Corp.

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group Inc. in Boston, said that the main question about the company's unified communications products is whether they will be ready for corporate use when released.

"Buyer beware," Kerravala said. "When has Microsoft ever entered a market with a business-ready product out the door? They eventually get it right, but the first versions are usually not corporate ready. Think back to the Microsoft proxy server, their firewall, Exchange and directory services."

Even so, Kerravala said Microsoft's plans show it could become "a huge threat to all the VOIP competitors." Within a few years, Microsoft could join Avaya Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. in owning about 90 percent of the VOIP marketplace, he said.

Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner Inc., said Microsoft's strategy will not be fulfilled for five to seven years, but makes sense because it relies on its installed based of Exchange and Active Directory users, as well as its presence servers. "IT managers are much more into evolution than revolution these days, so this announcement fundamentally makes some sense." Dulaney said.

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