Despite Microsoft's grand pronouncements that its unified communications launch signals a revolution in the way corporate workers interact, users and experts alike say the conversion will be a slow evolution that includes careful planning, budgeting and management.
At a recent event in San Francisco, Microsoft not only formally launched its unified communications (UC) platform anchored by Office Communications Server OCS 2007 and Office Communicator 2007 client, but also introduced the centerpieces of its unified communications strategy to bring together email, instant messaging, presence, voice and video.
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who kicked off the event, signaled that the UC platform is the beginning of the end for the monolithic and inflexible PBX. He said OCS and the UC platform are all about taking the magic of software and applying it to phone calls.
But while voice may be the most interesting component on the UC platform, it is by far the most complex and likely the last to make it under the fold.
Voice, however, is not the only lingering question about a set of services that also revolve around integrating email, instant messaging, presence, web conferencing and video so they can be tied into business applications and workflow processes. Experts say organisations aren't facing a single decision on UC, but a series of decisions that hopefully add up to what is promised as a Holy Grail for corporate communications.
"The biggest thing with IT goes back to the governance issue," says Mike Gotta, an analyst with the Burton Group. "How do I put the programme together because this is not a project, it is going to be a three-year program. Users have to get the desktop team, the collaboration team, the [unified communications] teams, they have to get the compliance people involved, they have to work with the business units on decision rights, they have to determine how much of this is centralised, how much wiggle room do the line-of-business units have, there will be touch points with wireless carriers, there are a lot of pieces so the biggest thing is organisation and governance."
Gotta says picking vendors also will be complicated, as Microsoft and IBM are engaged again in their traditional collaboration battle, but there are also options from Cisco and traditional telephony players such as Nortel, Siemens and others.
Gotta says another part of the technology decision is development tools.
"If the pay-off is to have communications-enabled business applications, then people need to spend a serious amount of time looking at the development models of these vendors," he says.
And one issue on the management side, he says, is that users have to re-think desktop strategies for a UC world.
"The desktop people are not used to managing PCs as communication devices. They have been managing them as computing devices and now all of a sudden they have a different [service level agreement] and a different set of demands on the hardware."
Users exploring the transition have learned to take things slowly because UC typically intersects a number of other projects.
"There are too many moving parts to make UC decisions in a vacuum," says Ronald Sindaco, CTO of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, a US$21 billion (NZ$28 billion) company with 49,000 employees in 164 countries. The company's goal over the next 36-48 months is to move its voice traffic to the network and integrate it along with presence and other UC tools into its applications, business processes and workflows.
But Sindaco, who is running a Siemens PBX today and evaluating that vendor's UC tools among others, says one of the first goals is setting up a governance board.
The company's UC project overlaps three other projects: converting from Novell GroupWise to Microsoft's Exchange, SharePoint Server and other collaboration technologies, a network convergence to move from Frame Relay to MPLS (and move voice and video traffic onto the network) and evaluating hardware platforms for voice controls.
Sindaco says UC sits at the intersection of all three of those projects and that the company has been looking at software for nearly two years.
"It's very difficult to sell to the executive board," he says. "There is no ROI unless you talk about soft dollars so they are looking at it as more overhead."
A recent Gartner study, IT Spending Survey: Early look at 2008, showed that VoIP has slipped out of the top 10 list of spending priorities. The research firm says that could signal slowing momentum on such undertakings.
At the San Francisco event, Microsoft's Gates all but acknowledged that the rollout to UC and integration with voice would be a methodical transition for a number of reasons.
He said voice will move to software over a period of time and work alongside the PBX into the near future, but the PBX will eventually disappear.
And clearly there are smaller issues of integration, including the lack of standard instant messaging protocols across consumer and corporate IM platforms, that could hamper integration.
Eric Swift, senior director of Microsoft's unified communications group, says complete unified communications still needs some work.
"We definitely hope long term that the ecosystem of service providers and vendors will break down those barriers so that we can federate not only IM and presence but also document sharing, voice [and] video regardless. That will really change the way things are done."
In Swift's demonstration during the San Francisco event, he used Office Communications Server to contact someone via IM, made a voice call through the IM window and even initiated a video conference via webcam.
But does it work with AOL's or Yahoo's instant messaging services?
Microsoft supports standards-based "federation" interoperability among different IM platforms, Swift said.
"With AOL, Yahoo and MSN [instant messaging], right now what we have done is federated IM and presence," he says.
However, that doesn't include converting an IM into a phone call or web conference.
Swift said Microsoft also is working in other areas. An internal Macintosh team has built client software that will be released shortly that offers to users of Apple's Mac platform some of the capabilities of Office Communications Server, including instant messaging, presence and the ability to make a voice phone call.