Microsoft Corp has outlined its most comprehensive unified communications product strategy. While it will be the company’s broadest product push in this area, Microsoft is late to the party and this was underscored when IBM announced a forthcoming product that may well undermine Microsoft’s.
Essentially, Microsoft said it was updating its Office product line and combining its Exchange Server, Office Outlook and Speech Server products with new communications devices from Microsoft partners.
The goal is to give business workers a platform for all their communications and collaboration needs, including presence, email, instant messaging, voice and conference.
In other words, a business can combine presence, email, IM, VoIP and conferencing into a single system. When an employee’s name appears in an email or Office document, there will be an icon showing that worker’s availability for an IM, VoIP call or email, for example.
The new products will be rolled out late 2006 at the earliest and through the second quarter of 2007. They will be the company’s most significant unified communications effort since it combined, in January, its Exchange server and real-time collaboration group to form a new Unified Communications Group.
The cornerstones of Microsoft’s strategy are Office Communications Server 2007, which is a new version of its current Live Communications Server, and Exchange Server 2007. The first is a SIP-based platform for instant messaging, VoIP and audio, video and web conferencing.
And Exchange Server 2007, for email and voicemail, will be revamped to include a new speech-based auto attendant that lets users access the corporate communications system from any phone.
Enterprises wanting to take advantage of Microsoft’s new collaboration stuff will need one or both of these servers, depending on the specific application.
For example, Office Communicator 2007, which enables intercompany federation and connectivity to public IM networks, including AOL and Yahoo, will require Communications Server 2007.
But IBM has announced a product of its own that promises similar capabilities but without the need for either Microsoft server.
IBM’s forthcoming Lotus Sametime 7.5 program also enables instant messaging and presence within any Microsoft Outlook, Office or SharePoint application.
Due for release either later this year or early next, Sametime 7.5 does not require any Microsoft server, said David Marshak, IBM’s senior product manager for real-time collaboration.
Moreover, Sametime 7.5 will also give presence to older Office versions, including Office 2000 and 2003 unlike Microsoft’s forthcoming products that require the latest version of Office.
Microsoft is really trying to push you to next version of Office, Marshak said.
IBM’s Lotus Sametime platform, which was announced in January and will ship in several weeks, is much more unified than Microsoft’s, according to Marshak, and is beyond what Microsoft announced for a year for now.
A year from now, you may be able to get all this stuff [from Microsoft], but you’ll have to buy all new servers, all new clients, everything, he said.
What’s notably different from Sametime 7.5 app and Microsoft’s platform is that Microsoft’s federation program is an extra application that costs extra – unlike IBM’s, Marshak said.
Microsoft also charges for multi-way audio within its product, while that is a built-in service of Sametime 7.5, he said.
Microsoft also said Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, Siemens and other device makers have agreed to build hardware that can make the most of its various communication software hook-ups.
This means Microsoft also is taking on other rivals in the form of network equipment makers, notably Avaya and Cisco Systems.
Marshak said Microsoft is forcing enterprises to choose between Avaya or Cisco for VoIP or Microsoft. In other words, companies wanting to use Microsoft’s new unified collab platform will have to use Microsoft partner devices.
[Microsoft] wants you to only use [Microsoft’s] stuff, Marshak said.
That’s a clear customer choice issue of whether I go all Microsoft all the time, or whether I have a choice of what to use. IBM, he noted, has products in the market that work with both Cisco and Avaya gear.
On the mobile front, Microsoft was certainly talking to partners around the world to make sure that we are connecting to … mobile networks and information such as location etc, with the suitable privacy constraints, said Microsoft’s Unified Communications Group VP Anoop Gupta, at a press event.
You don’t always have to do it through IMS … but across existing networks and networks of the future we can connect [communications and enterprise infrastructure] and make rich presence available, Gupta said.
IBM said Sametime 7.5 would offer connectivity to mobile devices from RIM and Nokia, as well as Microsoft Windows Mobile devices, at no extra charge.