By now, the world has heard how Microsoft (News - Alert) is going to lower the software boom on IP telephony and Unified Communications (UC) by delivering its new Office Communications 2007 as the enterprise server for multimodal business communications, including its own “softphone” clients for desktop PCs and mobile devices.
Aside from the flexibility of a screen-based interface and software communication functions, Microsoft can exploit its domination of Windows desktop applications to embed call initiation functions within business process applications. This move should be a sign that UC technology is becoming real enough for “government work.”
Microsoft’s announcement was pitched towards business end user benefits, describing feature capabilities that have long been discussed since the “unified communications” vision started to evolve from unified messaging over six years ago. Their presentation included demonstrations of how people can dynamically communicate across different modalities of contact, emphasizing the user-centric benefits of unified communications. They verbally used our term, “multimodal,” only once during the presentation, seeming to prefer “rich presence” (as a step up from instant text messaging) instead.
This formal move by Microsoft into IP telephony closes a marketing strategy loop with its domination of the enterprise text messaging market, i.e., email and instant messaging, and makes Microsoft a potential one-stop-shop for future business communications technology. Their approach has prompted Gartner to move Microsoft into a leading “ability to execute” position among the “leaders” in the new technology category of “unified communications.”
However, although UC products and services are still evolving and come in a variety of flavors to match the different communication needs of the marketplace, the reality of IP telephony and its impact on UC is requiring enterprise organizations to include UC planning considerations for any new telephony implementation.
Three Flavors of Enterprise UC Products?
According to Gartner, “UC solutions offered appear to be taking one of three general approaches. One is to bundle much of the functionality tightly together in a single solution; examples of this include the Nortel MCS5100 and the Siemens OpenScape. A second approach is to take a broad existing portfolio of separate communication functions and tie them together through some shared services, such as presence, administration and directories; examples of this include the Cisco and the Microsoft solutions. A third approach is to offer common communications framework or middleware that can then be used by a different unrelated communication applications; IBM (News - Alert) and Oracle are taking this approach. Each approach has strengths and weaknesses.”
As reported by Eric Krapf from BCR Magazine, Microsoft sees the PBX as a key variable in determining the enterprise UC migration strategy:
1. Retain TDM PBXs and telephones and integrate LCS/OCS 2007 for UC functionality
2, Integrate OCS 2007 with any current IP-PBX and IP phone installations
3. Bypass the need for enterprise PBX hardware technology and replace them with a pure LCS/OCS 2007 solution
However, there are dark sides that the enterprise market is sure to think about before committing to Microsoft’s offerings.
It’s Not Your Father’s Telephone System Anymore! - Software Hell?
The move into IP telephony and its software infrastructure is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it enables greater communication application flexibility, but on the other hand, it opens the floodgates of new feature capabilities and software patches to fix software bugs.
Combined with wireless mobility, it also means that communication devices for enterprise users will become more individualized by job responsibilities and personalized needs, and not as controllable by the IT/telecom department as the traditional wired desktop telephone. These issues, of course, will not be unique to Microsoft, but will present challenges for telephony technology providers, both old and new, who have embraced the future of software-based IP telephony and converged communications.
While we expect IP telephony application servers and endpoint device software clients to be a big management challenge for enterprise IT, the new IP-based UC technology also opens the door to practical hosted and managed services. This point was mentioned by Microsoft in its announcement of their own hosted unified communication services directly to the SMB market, as well as through major enterprise service providers (alias “carriers”) like Verizon and the “new” AT&T (News - Alert).
Where Does Microsoft Want to Play?
Microsoft’s focus was on provisioning communication application software infrastructures, not on the hardware. They announced new partnerships with leading endpoint device manufacturers like LG-Nortel (News - Alert), Thompson, Polygram, Motorola (News - Alert), etc., while preserving its “softphone” role at the desktop.
It is also positioning itself with OCS 2007 to be the contact gateway between business process applications and people, extending the Web concept of embedded information links to contacting appropriate people associated with information and business processes. This will tie automated self-service applications to live assistance for both internal enterprise users as well as for online service customers.
Microsoft is not ready to deliver much today with its announcement, but is paving the way for the near future. For that matter, no provider is really ready to deliver everything today, especially when it comes to presence-based converged communications. Not only are the necessary SIP standards not fully defined and implemented, but also the network, application servers and device clients are still being developed.
Because the bulk of the enterprise market is in “migration planning mode,” where legacy technology (e.g., PBXs, voice mail systems, desktop hard phones) will be replaced slowly and only as needed, it is essential that Microsoft introduce its UC capabilities so that it “gracefully” supplements existing capabilities that don’t have to be replaced.
That is why today Microsoft is actively “partnering” with leading TDM and IP telephony equipment providers to provide interoperability for it’s unified messaging and presence-based call management solutions. When it comes time to replace a legacy PBX, voice mail system, or a “hard” desk phone, it may be a different story.
Microsoft’s Bar Mitzvah Speech
In discussing Microsoft’s big announcement with Gartner’s Bern Elliot, who chaired a panel discussion of enterprise users as part of the program, he likened the event as a “coming out” party for Microsoft’s entry into IP telephony. While a “coming out” party is primarily a social event, I likened it to a Bar Mitzvah or coming of age (13) in the Jewish tradition. It’s not enough to have a party and socialize with friends and family, but the Bar Mitzvah boy must give a speech declaring his acceptance of new responsibilities as a grown up man.
Microsoft’s speech, delivered by Jeff Raikes and Anoop Gupta, essentially did just that. It was a commitment to the enterprise market that they would take on the responsibilities for supporting mission-critical, converged business communications, including traditional real-time telephony.
Elliot pointed out that this event served two main purposes for Microsoft:
1. Introduce their new organizational group for Unified Communications
2. Define the “area” and roadmap for their future product directions
He also indicated that the live audience at the Microsoft event was comprised primarily of industry analysts and potential technology partners, the people who can help drive the market towards the big changes in the future of UC.
What Microsoft Didn’t Talk About
There were a number of issues that Microsoft did not cover in detail during their two-hour show. Here are some of them:
- As mentioned earlier, Microsoft highlighted the coming operational benefits of their UC product announcements to business users, with out getting into the gory details of exactly how enterprises will integrate such capabilities with legacy telephony. They announced a free consultation offer to customers planning to migrate.
- As pointed out in audience questions and comments from industry analysts, Microsoft did not go into details of UC for the consumer market, although they acknowledged its importance. This will be of particular importance for customer contact applications, where the customers are consumers, and presence management technology will be critical for business processes that need to initiate contact with a consumer.
- The need for new management metrics for both individual and group productivity was not discussed, although everyone acknowledges the difficulty in quantifying the value of such “soft” benefits. Inasmuch as none of its competitors have come up with a solution to this issue, it remains an industry challenge.
- Enterprise consolidation of end user administration and support for all forms of communication is an obvious benefit that converged UC will enable. This was approached by Microsoft through the use of a single directory. However, it was not discussed in detail as part of a UC migration plan for IT.
- The role that UC will play in customer contact applications and the roadmap for migration was not discussed in detail.
- As pointed out in a question by industry consultant Don Van Doren, the functional vision of “unified” presence management was not very clear. This ties into how “federated” presence management will work, what individual end users will control, and what the enterprise and business process applications can control. It also involved issues of privacy management.
- Open interoperability between the Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 client and other UC servers was questioned by one analyst as a deterrent to “universal” presence/availability/modality management that UC is designed to support.
- Although Microsoft is targeting hosted UC services for both the SMB market and large enterprises, the question of software support for mission-critical services is not something that Microsoft is noted for.
You can read some of the to the Microsoft announcement here.
The Microsoft announcement puts the stamp of approval on where telephony is going within the context of multimodal unified communications. It is not matter of “if” for UC technology implementation, but “when,” “how,” and “who with.” (Didn’t we just get done saying that for VoIP?)
I have long been pushing the industry players to provide the market with direction for their UC products and services, so that there can be good planning and graceful migrations. So, I am glad that Microsoft is not ready to deliver all the products, because, quite frankly, I don’t think most of the market is really ready to use them.
However, it is not too early for enterprise organizations to get focused on their migration planning and, as I mentioned in my BCR article this month, get some objective help from the experienced consultants who have been involved with the evolution of converging communication technologies for years. Every migration will be somewhat different and there aren’t any solid “best practices” yet, but they will be starting to come soon.
What Do You Think?
Do you think that UC technology is ready for prime time? Do you think Microsoft is ready to take responsibility for mission-critical real-time telephony software? What about buying hosted enterprise services from Microsoft vs. from traditional carriers who can bundle in all kinds of vertical market business process applications?
Do you think that the traditional telephony providers can do a better job of developing and supporting mission-critical voice communication application software than Microsoft, and that their partnering with application providers, endpoint device manufacturers, and service providers will provide a practical enterprise way to migrate? Will Microsoft spin off the Unified Communications group into a separate company?
Art Rosenberg is a veteran of the computer and communications industry and formed The Unified View to provide strategic consulting to technology and service providers, as well as to enterprise organizations, in migrating towards converged wired and wireless unified communications.