Microsoft Corp has announced plans to make it easier for IP PBX vendors to integrate natively with its Office Communication Server collaboration platform, which is something achieved only by Nortel and smaller Canadian player Mitel.
As a real-time collaboration platform, OCS features VoIP calling as one of the communications modes. It can enable VoIP calls directly between devices loaded with its Office Communicator client, but in order to extend the capability to other IP phones, and even more critically, to the non-IP phones that make up the vast majority of the world market, it needs to work with a PBX or IP PBX.
There are three integration methods, two of which involve computer-telephone integration software on a separate server between OCS and the PBX, either in SIP or the standard for heterogeneous CTI prior to VoIP, Computer-Supported Telecommunications Applications . The third method is native integration via a Microsoft API.
Nortel has native integration on its CS1000 PBX, while Mitel has it on one product in its range, with the rest using the SIP or CSTA technology externally. As for the industry, they all require a gateway in the middle, said Mark Deakin, the Redmond, Washington-based ISV’s united comms group product manager for the UK.
Native integration is not a trivial matter, and Nortel was vociferous about having achieved it early last year, particularly as it led nicely into the subsequent unveiling of its Innovative Communications Alliance with Microsoft in united comms. Microsoft now wants to make it easy for any other IP PBX vendor to follow suit and, Deakin said, we’ll be making the specs available [for any IP PBX] to work natively with OCS.
Will other vendors want to do so, if only for equal boasting rights with Nortel? That remains to be seen. It’s a choice between integration and interoperability, though the end user won’t necessarily know, Deakin said.
Microsoft has to perform a delicate operation in unified comms. First, because while the alliance with Nortel is designed to drive its business there and is clearly its primary initiative in this area, it still needs to keep the other IP PBX vendors on side, mainly to guarantee maximum interoperability with OCS (hence the plan to make the spec readily available), but also so they don’t actively pursue strategies that strengthen its competitors in collaboration and unified comms.
Cisco has announced its teaming with IBM this week in the UC2 alliance, which is an obvious competitive move to ICA, though it was never really on the cards that it would do anything other than bolster its position against Microsoft/Nortel, given its market clout.
Avaya appears, for the time being, to be maintaining neutrality, working with both Microsoft and IBM to integrate with their collaboration suites, as well as underpinning Google’s SaaS offering of office productivity technology for the SMB space. It has also unveiled its Comms-Enabled Business Processes initiative for click-to-call and more out of enterprise apps like ERP and CRM, which in a sense rivals some of what Microsoft is doing to comms-enable Office and, in the Duet partnership, the SAP suite.
The second reason for Microsoft to tread lightly is the fact that its more long-term goals for OCS could be seen as obviating the need for a PBX altogether, and as threatening the livelihood of companies that derive a significant part of their revenue from that business.
Deakin insisted that OCS seeks to breathe new life into the PBX market. We’re looking at telephony going increasingly into software, with a software approach and software’s economics, he said. If anything, he said this should re-energize the PBX market, in that the renewal cycle on today’s hardware-based products is typically seven to 10 years, whereas in the software market that is more like two to three.
He said the move to software-based telephony functionality means that, over the next three years we expect to see 100 million people using VoIP via Office with presence and click-to-call, which is double the size of the current business VoIP market. To facilitate that growth, he said the company is working with three handset manufacturers (Polycom, LG Nortel, and Tandberg) to develop OC-enabled phones, with three basic models envisaged, two to work with PCs and laptops, the other a standalone IP deskphone.
The objective is for their products, bundled with the Microsoft client, should be cheap and so should proliferate, driving OCS and unified comms uptake generally. Gartner says that between 40% and 50% of the cost of any IPT project is the handsets, so by making them cheaper we can accelerate innovation, he said.