Microsoft Unifies its Communications

At a strategy event in San Francisco Monday, Microsoft unveiled its new "unified communications" plan, which ties together the company's server and Office products to establish a single experience for instant messaging, e-mail, VoIP, conferencing and mobile calling.

The driving idea behind unified communications is to enable businesses to stay connected 24 hours a day with an increasingly mobile workforce. "PC software makes it possible to see if someone is available before you send them an IM or an e-mail, what we call 'presence,' and calling someone can be as simple as clicking on their name," explained Jeff Raikes, president of the Microsoft Business Division.

Fulfilling this vision on the backend is Office Communications Server 2007 and Exchange 2007, both set for availability next year. Exchange 2007 will handle e-mail, calendaring, faxes and even voicemail. Through integration with Exchange Server, Outlook 2007 users can access e-mail and even reschedule meetings over the phone.

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Office Communications Server, formerly known as Live Communications Server, provides the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) infrastructure for voice over IP calling, video conferencing, as well as instant messaging across a number of different providers and devices. OCS 2007 is slated for release in the second quarter of 2007.

On the client side, Office Communicator 2007 will link up with OCS to serve as the unified communications client, connecting to MSN, AOL and Yahoo networks with desktop, mobile and browser-based versions. Office Live Meeting, meanwhile, will provide a conferencing experience beyond what can be done with Communicator.

New to the platform will be Office RoundTable, a 360-degree camera that was incubated in Microsoft Research labs under the code-name RingCam. The device, due out in Q2 2007, enables off-site meeting participants to get a panoramic view of the conference room, as well as close-up views of the individual currently speaking.

Microsoft will also work with other device manufacturers to integrate Office Communicator into IP-based desk phones. HP, Motorola and Siemens have each announced plans to build hardware based on Microsoft's unified communications platform. Motorola will offer Office Communicator 2007 in phones released next year.

The push to an always-connected culture has had a secondary effect of eliminating the differences between work time and personal time, Microsoft acknowledges. "The line, so to speak, between digital lifestyle and digital work style is really quite a gray line; in fact, it may not exist at all," said Raikes.

"In that context people really want to be in control of their communications, they want to have much better ability to indicate who they want to communicate with, when they want to communicate with them, know whether they're available, what's the best way to communicate with them, and that's the focus of our software."

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