Coming Together in Real Time

One of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons is "Deep Space Homer," for one simple reason: Newscaster Kent Brockman utters the famous line "I for one welcome our new insect overlords." That line has been repurposed quite a bit, and I'm going to do it again: I for one welcome our new real-time overlords. If you don't know what I'm talking about, relax; we're not being invaded by giant servers from outer space. If you missed the announcement, on January 30 Microsoft said that it was merging the Exchange Server product team and the Real-Time Collaboration (RTC) team into a new group called the Unified Communications Group (UCG). (This might not be the worst Microsoft acronym ever, but it's certainly on my top-10 list). This merger is interesting from a number of perspectives. First, if you think back to the era of Exchange 2000 Server, you'll remember that the Exchange team _was_ the RTC group: Exchange 2000 included conferencing and IM servers, designed and built by the Exchange team. When Microsoft decided to launch its own enterprise-scale IM product, the company created a separate team to do so in a new product unit, after which the new product--Microsoft Live Communications Server--quickly began rising up the sales charts. From this perspective, it makes sense to reunify the two products that provide the backbone of Microsoft's communications strategy: Exchange for messaging and calendaring and Live Communications Server (and its partner, Microsoft Office Live Meeting) for real-time collaboration. The second perspective is more technical. Live Communications Server 2005 is based on the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). SIP is the standard protocol for enterprise IM, but it's becoming increasingly important because it's starting to better fulfill its original design rationale--as a superset of the switching and call control functionality found in the public telephone network. The combination of Live Communications Server 2005 and Microsoft Office Communicator already offers some very impressive integration of IM, call control, and VoIP functionality with Microsoft Office applications and SharePoint. With the advent of Exchange 12's SIP-based unified messaging, it makes technical sense to unify the product architectures. However, I don't expect to see major changes in Exchange 12 or the next release of the RTC product line; the two teams have already been working together, and Microsoft has laid the groundwork for integration between Exchange 12 and the next release of Live Communications Server. The bigger potential payoffs come down the road, as Microsoft moves to implement its strategy of providing pervasive presence and communications services in all its applications. If you've used Office Outlook 2003 with Windows Messenger or Office Communicator, you've already gotten a glimpse of this world: With one click, you can see which of your contacts are available for IM, and you can easily establish conferencing or IM sessions with them. This is just the start, though; having closer integration between Live Communications Server (which provides the core SIP transport) and Exchange (which will use that transport, and which in turn provides store-and-forward services to other SIP applications) will make it possible to implement services such as call routing that now require support from the PBX system. From a long-term perspective, this unification might mean fundamental changes in the way we work and communicate. This might seem far-fetched now, but if you look back 20 years, would you have predicted the cost and power of today's handheld PDAs or the ubiquity and low cost of cell phones? Me neither.

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