Microsoft Set to Launch Unified Communications Products

Microsoft will launch its next-generation unified communications (UC) software products--Office Communications Server 2007 (the successor to Live Communications Server 2005), Office Communicator 2007, and Office Live Meeting (the successor to Live Meeting 2005)--on October 16. The three products recently completed a nearly one-year-long beta cycle. Appropriately enough, the launch will be Webcast live, so you can tune in if you don't get enough of in-person meetings in the normal course of your work.

Poor attempts at humor notwithstanding, Microsoft's new UC products are worth examining. The lowest profile product of the bunch, Office Live Meeting, has actually had the biggest affect on my job. Thanks to its ability to quickly arrange long distance virtual meetings, I've traveled quite a bit less over the past year and have had fewer groups from other locations to my own office. Granted, because much of my work involves discussing upcoming products with Microsoft, this makes a lot of sense, but I suspect Live Meeting could have similar travel-related advantages for many enterprises. It's a mature and reliable product.

Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 and Office Communicator 2007, the latter of which is an enterprise-class IM, voice, and video communications client, can have similar impact in various scenarios. These products speak to the ongoing trend of PCs becoming all-in-one communications hubs based around technologies such as VoIP. I think of OCS almost as an Exchange Feature Pack because it builds so obviously off of Exchange's communications features, adding such features as audio and video conferencing, group IM, and presence. If you're looking to completely overhaul your communications infrastructure, this looks like a fairly complete solution.

In related news, Microsoft has also completed development of System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM, or "scum" as we lovingly refer to it) 2007. SCCM is the successor to Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS). I'll have more to say about SCCM in the near future.

Re-examining Trust and Web Services
Over the past few weeks, I've written about such topics as vendor trust and the viability of Web services such as Google Apps. In a grand coincidence, the three-day disruption of the Skype VoIP service touched on both of these topics, so I want to quickly address that here. I was profoundly disturbed to see that Skype officials actually blamed the outage on Microsoft, though they later recanted that accusation: Apparently, a large number of Windows PCs rebooted after Microsoft issued its regularly scheduled monthly set of security updates earlier this month, triggering a hitherto-unknown software error in Skype's server code. Clearly, the problem was with Skype, not Microsoft, and I'd have preferred to see the company be clearer off the bat about where the fault lay.

The Skype outage does, of course, raise natural questions about the viability of Web-based services as well. It's one thing to lose access to a crucial cloud computing service such as email, calendaring, or even telephony for a few minutes here and there, but three days is unacceptable under any circumstances. Clearly, for cloud-based computing to really take off, Internet services must be as reliable as your electrical service, a trite and overused (yet effective) comparison. I think we'll get to that point, but honestly, the biggest take-away about the Skype outage should be that it's an exception not a rule: Skype has been quite reliable over the years, and this was its first major outage.

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