Stacked-Unified Communications Revisited

Last June, Microsoft held an event in San Francisco where top executives demonstrated new software and hardware components that round out its Unified Communications (UC) solutions stack, and, to use Bill Gates' terminology, "make it easy for people to reach each other using the mode of communication that is the most productive, on the device that is most convenient." Its partners - including LG-Nortel, Polycom, and Thomson Telecom (based in Australia) - set out to define hardware and software that fill out a solution stack for enterprise IP-telephony. Other members of its hardware consortium include Motorola, Samsung, Plantronics, Tatung, Logitech and Siemens.

At the time, the Wall Street Journal pointed out that Microsoft was already piloting telephony initiatives in the Philippines, using real-time server software to allow Filipinos overseas to speak to their families throughout the world using either VoIP or WiFi. Microsoft also positioned its communications backbone to enable overseas workers to send their earnings home using a Windows Mobile 5.0 device.

Cutting Through Corporate Chaos

To show how fickle and chaotic the enterprise infrastructure market is, the trade press portrayed Microsoft's move as a direct assault on switch and router makers as well as providers such as (in alphabetical order) Alcatel, Avaya, Cisco, IBM, Nortel and Siemens. Readers who've paid attention to the UC marketplace will know that three out of these five companies are solid partners of Microsoft in UC projects past and present.

Siemens was already on Microsoft's short list of enterprise switching providers that had tuned its IP-PBXs to support Communicator and the Live Communications Server (LCS2005). Alcatel's Genesys subsidiary launched its joint development effort with Microsoft in February 2005 and began offering an LCS2005 compatible version of GETS (Genesys Enterprise Telephony Software) for nearly a year. Nortel would be the odd man out; save for its joint venture with Korean phone manufacturer LG that has offered alternatives to the IP telephones from Cisco, Alcatel, Avaya, and others.

Old Wine in New Bottles?

The big question is whether Microsoft's foray into voice telecom was more than a repackaging of existing initiatives. Thus far, the evidence points to maybe. Microsoft is not alone in refreshing efforts to attract more corporate spending on real-time, IP-based communications and collaboration in the enterprise. The day that Microsoft announced its new initiative was the same day that IBM announced some major changes to SameTime, which battles closely with Microsoft's Live Communications Server for share of the real-time collaboration software market.

The most salient enhancements to SameTime, while moving to rev 7.5, is the ability to launch its features from Microsoft Office, Microsoft SharePoint, and Microsoft's Outlook email client. In other words, IBM also announced a broader roster of mobile devices to support the SameTime client, including RIM, Nokia, and Windows Mobile devices. IBM's enhancements will be available later this year.

IBM is joined by Avaya, Oracle, and Cisco as each tries to sort out whether to position its software behind the Microsoft desktop or against Microsoft by displacing the Communicator client from desktops, laptops, and smartphones. As IBM's strategy indicates, the core application programming interface that underlies Microsoft's UC solutions is ASP.net and it has proven to be a very stable and welldocumented set of interfaces.

Oracle has filled out its applicationdriven self-service solution stack through acquisition. High-profile acquisitions of Siebel Systems, PeopleSoft, and Portal show how Larry Ellison's vision of self-service spans customer care, service delivery, and billing. Low profile, smaller acquisitions of HotSip AB, TimesTen, Net4Call, and especially Telephony@Work make IP contact centers the hotbed for both competition and cooperation in solutions delivery.

Infrastructure providers are well advised to continue to get behind rather than against Microsoft in the battle for the desktop, which will surely fan out into the new reality of IP-driven telephony. There's never been a better time to support the cause of real-time communications as Microsoft prepares to step up spending in development by more than a billion dollars each year.

Dan Miller is a senior analyst for Opus Research. He founded Opus Research, Inc. and published Telemedia News & Views, a monthly newsletter regarding developments in voice processing and intelligent network services. He can be reached at dmiller@opusresearch.net.


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