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Volume 4, Number 38 -- October 17, 2007

Office Communication Server 2007 Launched by Microsoft

Published: October 17, 2007

by Alex Woodie

Microsoft launched arguably its most important new product of the year yesterday when it declared the general availability of Office Communication Server (OCS) 2007, the Voice over IP (VoIP) server at the heart of the company's Unified Communications (UC) product strategy. By making phone calls and related functions--such as accessing voice mail or initiating a conference call--into an extension of Microsoft Office, the new UC product line should herald the same type of jump in worker productivity that e-mail and graphical interfaces brought during the 1990s, company officials said.

During his keynote at the UC launch event in San Francisco, Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates drilled home the point that it's high time to integrate phone systems with the rest of a company's IT infrastructure.

"The digitization of the economy means as a company you have digital records about your customers and what's going on. When they call in, of course that should just show up on the screen. If you pass the call around, the information about who's doing what, what the issue is--all that should just pass around," Gates said. "So as we digitize, the idea that the phone call sat outside of that structure, it becomes more and more evident that it really is the one thing that hasn't been pulled in and been subject to the software and hardware revolution."

In some ways, the traditional PBX is like a mainframe, "where all the functionality was there in that one piece, and the way you have flexibility to add value, to customize, to bring in third parties to do new things, just isn't there," Gates said. "And so by moving phone calls on the Internet using the power of industry-standard servers, we've got a very different way of being able to do things, and that can mean not only lower costs by being far more effective in how your employees work within your company, or with customers or partners out side your company."

Jeff Raikes, head of the Microsoft Business unit, said the new UC products will help end the era of phone tag, "voice mail jail," and blind dialing. With the capability to see whether other people are available with an icon on the computer screen, and then initiating a direct call, a conference call, an IM conversation, or a video teleconference at the touch of a button, OCS 2007 and associated products should allow workers to start communicating instead of fiddling with communications technology, Raikes says.

Raikes came bearing hard numbers. He says a recent survey found average workers spend 37 minutes per week in voice mail jail, unable to actually speak with the people they're trying to reach. Workers will be able to reclaim these wasted hours with OCS 2007 on the back-end and Office Communicator running on the PC. "Unified Communications will change business communications as much as e-mail did in the 1990s," Raikes said.

Other common, but daunting, tasks should also be made easier by the products. For example, research suggests that only one in three people have successfully transferred a phone call, while the success rate is even lower for starting a conference call, Gates said. The traditional approach of adding more buttons to business phones to solve this problem just won't cut it, Gates said. "That's just not going to work."

Several related products were released yesterday as part of Microsoft's UC product line, including OCS 2007, Office Communicator 2007, Office Live Meeting, RoundTable, and a service pack for Exchange Server 2007. Here's a breakdown on these specific products.

  • OCS 2007: This is the backbone of Microsoft's UC strategy, providing core VoIP, Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), instant messaging (IM), and video Web conferencing functionality. It's also an update to the older Live Communication Server product, and runs on Windows Server 2003. The Standard version of OCS, which includes the IM and SIP capabilities, will cost $488 for the server component and an average $21 for each server Client Access License (CAL), while the Enterprise version of OCS 2007, which adds the VoIP and Web conferencing capabilities, costs about $2,791 for the server component and $97 for each CAL.
  • Office Communicator 2007: This is the user-facing application that people will use to view the presence status of others (such as online, busy, idle, or offline), to place and receive VoIP calls using headsets that attach to the PC, to initiate IM chat, and to join Web conferences. Similar capabilities will also be offered for Windows Mobile 6 devices through Office Communicator Mobile and over the Web via Office Communicator Web Access. Communicator is included with Office Professional Plus 2007 and Office Enterprise 2007, or can be purchased separate by volume-licensing customers for $31 each.
  • Office Live Meeting: The purpose of this new software is to allow users to conduct Web conferences and share documents. The product is available in two versions, including a Professional edition that supports up to 1,250 simultaneous participants in a conference and stores recorded meetings for up to 360 days, which costs about $15 per user per month; and a Standard edition that supports up to 15 simultaneous participants and costs about $5 per user per month.
  • RoundTable: The design of this Web conferencing phone features a 360-degree camera that is able to zoom in on the speaker when he or she is talking, and is also able to record meetings. It costs $3,000.
  • Service pack for Exchange Server 2007: This update brings to Exchange a built-in auto-attendant that's able to answer and route inbound voice calls, and allows users to access their voice mail in their Outlook inboxes.

Customers will be able to place and receive calls using the Office Communicator "soft phone," or they can buy traditional-looking desktop phones that support the VoIP protocol. OCS-compatible phones will be available from all the major IP equipment vendors, including: Nortel Networks, Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya, Cisco Systems, LG-Nortel, Mitel Networks, NEC Philips Unified Solutions, Polycom, and Siemens Communications.

Gates somehow found time during the launch to write a 1,600-word essay titled "The Age of Software-Powered Communications," which arrived via e-mail in this reporter's inbox during the middle of yesterday's festivities. In it, Gates makes the point that the Web has made quantum improvements in human-to-human collaboration, which has spurred economic success unrivaled throughout history, but that there is still room for improvement.

"Although we have once-unimaginable access to people and information, we struggle today to keep track of e-mails and phone calls across multiple inboxes, devices, and phone numbers; to remember a growing number of passwords; and to synchronize contacts, appointments, and data between desktop PCs and mobile devices," the multi-tasking Gates wrote. "The fact is that the proliferation of communications options has become a burden that often makes it more difficult to reach people than it used to be, rather than easier."

Gates said the problem is that communication today is largely bound by devices, but software is able to free communications from these limitations. "Soon, you'll have a single identity that spans all of the ways people can reach you, and you'll be able to move a conversation seamlessly between voice, text, and video and from one device to another as your location and information sharing needs change."

We're not to the Shangri-La of communications yet, but with the new product launched by Microsoft yesterday, a path to that goal has been set in motion.


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