Microsoft Launches Communications Suite
At a live event in San Francisco, Microsoft today announced the launch of its "Unified Communications" (UC) suite of products, which aims to blur the distinction between electronic and voice communications and provide a seamless experience that relegates traditional telephone use to the dark ages.
Underlining the importance of the launch was Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, who said during the event that "now is the time when communications will be revolutionized."
The products that Gates hopes will lead the revolution include Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 -- the client component of Office Communications Server 2007 -- and Microsoft Office Live Meeting, a real-time, online collaboration package.
Microsoft also announced a service pack release for Exchange Server 2007, which will integrate it more fully with the UC products launched.
The underlying technology is voice over IP (VoIP), which moves communications from the realm of hardware into software. Gates said that the shift to UC will be "as profound as the shift from typewriters to word processors."
Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007, the successors to Live Communications Server, were released to manufacturing on July 27. Live Meeting is Microsoft's hosted Web conferencing service. A key part of that was demonstrated at the presentation, with Roundtable, a $3,000 video camera and microphone system that provides a 360-degree view of a room. Using Office Communicator, end users can see and hear all meeting attendees, whether in the room or off site.
Technologies such as Roundtable will help businesses be more efficient, according to Jeff Raikes, president of the Microsoft Business Division. He said that according to one study, employees spend "37 minutes per week in voice mail jail or playing phone tag. Not just the lost time is important, but what it means in terms of the business," Raikes said.
"Using identity and presence at the core, [workers will] miss fewer conversations and calls, get to business faster and get business done," he added.
Gates detailed hard numbers to back up those assertions. According to a Microsoft-sponsored study by Forrester Research, companies could see a 500-percent return on investment over three years. The figures are so high, Gates said, because much of the infrastructure, including the network, servers, clients and e-mail, is already in place in companies.
Microsoft is working hard to create an ecosystem around UC. Raikes announced that more than 50 partners are unveiling products and services for the UC family, and said more will be coming. "It's a platform for companies to develop on," he said. In addition, three telephony equipment companies -- Nortel Networks, Ericsson and Mitel Networks Corp -- are building software apps to run on top of UC and extend their abilities.
Microsoft did not immediately release pricing information for the products. However, previously it has said the licensing model will remain the same as it is for Live Communications server; namely, that both client and server licenses will be needed, and will be available in both Standard and Enterprise versions.