Microsoft fires web conferencing salvo

Microsoft this week will unveil Office Live Meeting, the first service offered as part of its Office productivity suite

Microsoft this week will unveil Office Live Meeting, the first service offered as part of its Office productivity suite. Although the first version will pepper only a few enhancements above the service Microsoft acquired from PlaceWare earlier this year, the move signals Microsoft's long-term aspiration to bring online meetings into the enterprise collaboration platform fold.

As a hosted service, Live Meeting will continue the PlaceWare legacy, competing against market leader WebEx Communications and a host of other players. In this initial incarnation, Live Meeting has not yet been integrated into Office and as such will not immediately alter enterprise decision-making for web conferencing, according to analyst Mike Gotta, senior vice president of Meta Group.

In fact, out of the gate, Microsoft must face the challenge of proving itself a reliable service provider.

"Right now, they have an uphill battle to rebrand and reconstitute themselves as someone who can run an online service," Gotta said.

But as Microsoft forges deeper links to its Office system over time, analysts predict the company will likely emerge as a Web conferencing powerhouse in. Deep hooks to the company's ubiquitous Office suite could reshape the Web conferencing landscape by unlocking online meetings from stand-alone, departmental services and integrating them into the enterprisewide collaboration platform.

"The tipping point will come when Microsoft ties the hosted offerings to the Office family of products," Gotta said.

Microsoft's intention in the space is to do just that. The Office Live Meeting service will eventually be complemented with server software offerings to give enterprises the option to choose hosted services, to install server infrastructure behind the firewall, or to leverage a combination of the two, according to Jennifer Callison, director of marketing at Microsoft's real-time collaboration business unit.

"Our vision is that the best strategy is a server-service continuum. It is better if both offerings are available — invisible to users whether they are accessing server or service," Callison said.

This future infusion into Office is Microsoft's key advantage, according to Mark Levitt, research vice president of collaborative computing at IDC.

Although other vendors have basic integration with Outlook and other products, "Microsoft will always have an advantage to provide better packaging and integration of their products with each other than the competition," Levitt said.

But because PlaceWare technology was neither Windows- nor .Net-based, Microsoft must convert the technology to Windows before it can introduce software or provide hooks into Office — no small task, according to Levitt.

"I hope they take their time. It will not be an easy or quick conversion. It could take several years," Levitt said.

Furthermore, major infrastructure players such as Microsoft, IBM , and Oracle will be aided by a trend already in progress, which finds enterprises moving away from departmental Web conferencing purchasing decisions to standardise on a broader collaboration toolset that includes online meeting functionality, according to analysts.

"Web conferencing decisions that were once departmental are mostly centralised now to save money," Gotta said. "Enterprises are trying to standardise on a single Web conferencing provider and are looking at how it fits into the bigger collaboration strategy, and that will favor Microsoft."

When Microsoft realizes its larger infrastructure vision, the company will face off against IBM, which has had Web conferencing technology available for several years. IBM is also attempting to unify the once separate collaboration elements of IM, team collaboration, email, Web conferencing, portals, and document management. IBM will still sell the pieces separately but also plans to offer them as collaboration components within its Lotus Workplace offering.

IBM Global Services last year began offering Lotus IM and Web conferencing as a hosted service; down the road, the company plans to tie that service more closely to its premise-based software, according to Kevin McLellan, marketing manager of Workplace collaboration products at IBM Lotus.

"We've seen the need from our customers to have flexibility in how you acquire that capability," McLellan said.

Other players not to be discounted in the space include Oracle, which has rounded out its Collaboration Suite with Internet meeting capabilities. A host of smaller vendors such as Akiva, Arel Communications and Software, Latitude Communications , and Raindance Communications are vying for market share alongside WebEx.

For its part, WebEx — the sector's established market leader — will need to expand the range of applications it runs on its global MediaTone Network to stay competitive with the larger collaboration platforms, Meta Group's Gotta said.

For this week's release, the primary retooling to the PlaceWare technology will come in the form of a new native Windows client for Microsoft Office Live Meeting. This will extend the original browser access mode to include a familiar Windows look and feel. It offers context-sensitive and file/edit/view menus for the management of meetings, as well as other Windows features such as keyboard shortcuts, roll-over icons, and the ability to drag and drop panels. The service will continue to support the browser client to ensure broad reach, but the Windows console will feature more functionality, according to Microsoft's Callison.

"The Windows native console is the critical foundation piece for integration with Office going forward," Callison said.

Other improvements include a clustered server environment and load balancing to bolster reliability and a scalability increase to support as many as 250,000 concurrent participants for a customer, according to Microsoft officials.

In the third quarter, Microsoft plans to add presence awareness and IM capabilities to the Live Meeting environment, allowing meeting participants to see the availability status of other participants. The company also has plans in place for its incremental integration with enterprise infrastructure such as Exchange, directory services, and development environments in the future.

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