Microsoft throws unified communications party
Bill Gates signs guitar
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.
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.
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. ®