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Microsoft throws unified communications party

Bill Gates signs guitar

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Today, in downtown San Francisco, Microsoft's long-awaited lineup of "unified communications software" was officially announced by chairman Bill Gates, business division president Jeff Raikes, and a surly-looking guitarist in a red velvet jacket.

As he officially introduced the world to this collection of interwoven VoIP, video conferencing, and messaging tools, Gates called it "a big bet that we've made and one we feel great about". Raikes insisted that the announcement was "a milestone not just for Microsoft but a milestone for the industry." And Mr Red Velvet played a guitar tagged with Bill Gates's signature and a Microsoft unified communications logo.

Redmond first trumpeted its plan for so-called unified communications more than a year ago, and this morning, it rolled into San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium to proclaim that five new comms products are now available across the globe.

Servers, clients, and panoramic views

The centerpiece is Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, or OCS, a back-end behemoth that provides business types with VoIP, video conferencing, and instant messaging as well as "presence tracking." You know, those little icons that tell you what your colleagues are up to and how you can reach them.

End users can tap into OCS from any Office app, but Microsoft has also introduced a client-side option known as Office Communicator 2007. Think of it as Outlook to OCS's Exchange. It runs on the desktop or from a web browser, and there's a version for mobile phones too.

At the same time, Gates and company have unveiled a new version of their hosted conferencing service, Office Live Meeting, that offers many of the same comms tools available from OCS. And they've introduced their very own video conferencing hardware appliance. When used in tandem with Live Meeting, OCS, or other video conferencing software, the $3000 Microsoft RoundTable provides a panoramic view of meeting participants.

Oh, and there's a new service pack update for Exchange that ties Microsoft email, calendaring, and contacts server into this unified communications extravaganza.

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