Microsoft Phones the Enterprise

This week, Microsoft will finally unveil its unified communications (UC) products at a launch event in San Francisco. I briefly discussed these products back in August, but now that the company is pushing them out to the public, I thought this would be a good time for a bit more information.

Microsoft's UC product line touches technologies like Active Directory (AD) and Exchange Server, but also includes new products such as Office Communications Server (OCS), Live Meeting, Office Live Communicator, and a new range of hardware that's designed to work with these solutions. At a high level, what the company is doing is almost as revolutionary as it is obvious, and it makes me wonder why we haven't seen more of an effort in this space from a variety of competitors.

Looking just at a typical business PC, you might see several software components that are designed around your communications needs: an email application or Web-based interface, an IM client, possibly an IP-based phone solution. Look away from the PC screen for a moment and you'll see a phone--PBX or otherwise--as well as a smart phone or cell phone. Standing in your doorway, perhaps, is a coworker, trying to prevent you from reading this newsletter. And is that an actual fax machine in the corner?

These communication interfaces are all important in various ways, but they can also be distractions in the worst moments, such as when you're engaged with any one of them and another one trills whatever notification system it possesses. What makes this truly unmanageable, of course, is that they're not all connected. In the typical business setting today, it's very rare to have more than a few of these interfaces be even passingly aware of each other. So you need to remember to turn off the ringer on your traditional phone if you're making an IP-based call, for example. That's silly.

Microsoft is seeking to change all that, and although it will come as no surprise to anyone that it is doing so via new server, PC desktop, and mobile computing software, this is an approach that clearly makes sense. And Microsoft's software-based approach allows for the kinds of integration that just aren't possible with the wide range of disconnected solutions we're using today.

Look at that phone you're using. Sure it can make and receive calls, put people on hold, connect two or more other people in a conference call, and perform other functions that AT&T was probably cooking up in its labs 30 years ago. But is it part of an interconnected communications system that knows not only whether you're busy or not, but what you're actually doing? Can it intelligently forward incoming messages based on this status to a range of hardware and software solutions? This is one of the scenarios Microsoft is trying to address with its UC solutions, and from what I can see, its going to revolutionize the ways we get in touch with and communicate with each other.

Here's a simple example: Using Office Live Communicator, Microsoft's new centralized PC communications client, you can do things like text-based IM, IP-based phone calls, conference calls, video conferencing, and so on. But Communicator is also savvy about your status--whether you're busy or not and, using deep Exchange integration--what exactly it is your doing and when you'll be free. It's also savvy about handing off incoming messages appropriately. So if you're in an important meeting (in what might be called "Do Not Disturb" mode) and you get a call from a co-worker, it will be silently pushed off to voice mail. You're literally not disturbed. But if someone you've set as being at the personal or team level makes the call, you might receive a silent IM message. And these people are able to escalate the call and interrupt you if it's truly an emergency.

With such a system, messages are always forwarded in intelligent ways. If the phone rings and you're not busy, you'll see an onscreen prompt. You can redirect that call, on the fly, at any time, to other communications end points, like your smart phone, or the speakerphone on your desk. Missed calls and voice mails pop up in your Exchange Inbox, where they belong. It works with IP-based phone calls, regular phones, Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), whatever. The IM component integrates with public IM networks such as AIM, MSN/Messenger, and Yahoo!. And if you're in an important IM conversation, you can easily escalate that to a voice call or even a video conference with just the click of a button.

On the hardware side, Microsoft and its partners are working on a number of solutions including intelligent handsets and even a Windows CE .NET-based Communicator phone that includes fingerprint logon and the full Communicator experience. The new Roundtable video conferencing tools sits in the middle of a conference table and presents a terrific widescreen view of the entire room as well as an intelligent focus on whoever's talking at the time. It's pretty incredible and nicely avoids issues when people are talking over each other.

The final piece of the puzzle is the new version Live Meeting, which has already transformed my own work experience: I've had to travel far less this past year thanks to the virtual meetings that are possible with this tool. The new version supports meeting recordings, including data, voice, video, and panoramic video, that can be triggered by any of the clients. It's proven to be incredibly valuable and usable.

Microsoft's UC advances are truly impressive. If you're looking for more information, I suspect the company's Web site will be updated after today's launch event.

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