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Microsoft throws unified communications party

Bill Gates signs guitar

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He wore red velvet

The morning began when the lights went down in the Bill Graham auditorium, pseudo-smoke filled the stage, and Mr Red Velvet stepped out with his Microsoft guitar. Velvet wailed away for several minutes, and the Bill Gates signature got most of the attention on the TV screens behind him.

The guitar was a Gibson, you see, and Gibson is one of the 300,000 companies beta tested OCS over the past several months.

When the wailing stopped, Gates walked in. He was not wearing red velvet, but like Raikes, he dropped the word "milestone". Bill believes that Microsoft's new platform will overhaul telephone communications in much the same way the PC overhauled the mainframe industry, moving the world away from the traditional phone switch, or PBX, to pure voice over IP. And when you move to VoIP, he said, you can dovetail with all sorts of other nifty software communication tools.

"What today's announcement is about is taking the magic of software and applying it phone calls," Gates explained. "And once you've got software in the mix, the capabilities go well beyond what anybody thinks of today when we think of phone calls."

He called the new platform "a complete transformation of the traditional PBX." But then he contradicted himself. At the moment, he explained, OCS gives you the option of discarding desk phones entirely, handling all calls through your PC, but you can also use the platform in tandem with your existing PBX, attaching your PC and your desk phone.

In any event, the idea is for businesses to consolidate all their communications - from email and IM to voice and video conferencing - on a single software platform that runs across mucho applications and mucho devices. And with presence tracking, the platform will tell how you can best reach someone at any given moment.

They've got stats

When Jeff Raikes followed Gates onto the stage, he acted like the world had just been delivered from the Dark Ages: "The era of dialing blind, the era of playing phone tag, the era of voice mail jail, the era disconnected communications - that era has ended. A new way to communicate starts today."

According to Raikes, who used the word "milestone" at least six times, the 300,000 customers using OCS today are already seeing "25 to 30 per cent savings" thanks to the platform. Evidently, employees spend less time on hold, they spend less time on the road, and they're generally more efficient because they spend much less time trying to figure out how to get in touch with people.

To prove the point, Raikes and Gates rolled out glorified advertisements from customers Virgin Megastore and French body products seller L'Occitane. They also cited a study from Forrester Research - based on interviews with 15 Microsoft unified comm customers - that says such companies rake up a 500 per cent return on investment within three years of installing OCS.

Partners galore

But as Gates made quite clear, this platform will extend well beyond Microsoft products. More than 50 Redmond partners are building hardware, software, and services for the platform, including Nortel Networks, Ericsson, and SAP.

SAP and Microsoft, for instance, are partnering to add OCS hooks into Duet, a tool that ties together SAP tools and MS Office apps. When a colleague's name pops up on this sort of OCS-ified app, users can instantly launch a list of ways to contact them. Microsoft calls it "click to communicate."

As he's done before, Raikes predicted that such tools will soon take over the industry. "Within three years, more than 100 million people will be able to click to communicate," he said.

Of course, he failed to mention that Redmond's new platform is facing some competition. Judging from today's epic dog-and-pony show, you'd think that Microsoft invented unified communications, but companies like Cisco and IBM would argue otherwise. ®

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