In-Depth

The Unified Communications Puzzle

ISVs look to fill in some of the pieces of Microsoft's unified communications vision.

When we're communicating with someone else, we let the medium dictate the contact. It determines how we exchange information, maintain contacts' records -- even how we speak or write. E-mail has its own client, server and set of protocols. It's the same deal with telephone service. Instant messaging (IM) also has its own set of rules. Even if we're talking on the telephone, it matters if we're using a traditional telephone company, a wireless provider or Voice over IP (VoIP).

Here's where The Next Big Thing will play out for Microsoft. It's not about advertising or the Web or services: It's about unifying how we interact with others using technology. Microsoft is willing to leave face-to-face interaction alone for now, but anything that puts electronics and software in the middle is fair game. Unlike advertising, it's a natural extension for Microsoft, as Windows already handles many types of non-voice communications, including voice services like Skype.

Microsoft envisions a seamless blend of media that automatically changes and adapts based on the user's needs at that moment. The goal is to tie different media to different devices in such a way that as they work in concert, they make you more productive and not dependent on certain devices to communicate in certain ways (see "Microsoft's Vision for Unified Communications").

Microsoft's Vision for Unified Communications
Here's what Microsoft sees on the horizon for unified communications (UC).

The computer starts to work like a phone. To call someone, you just click on his or her name. The computer places the call.

The phone starts to work like a computer. With UC technologies, you click to call. Click once more and you can launch a conference call. Do you need video? That, too, is just a click away.

Voicemail becomes e-mail. When voicemail becomes e-mail, you can annotate and forward it just like any e-mail-to a single person, to a group or team, or to an entire department.

VoIP as you are. Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 delivers presence and instant messaging, plus audio and video conferencing. It also integrates with many existing telecommunications infrastructures, including PBX systems.

UC streamlines infrastructure. Microsoft's UC technologies use Active Directory to unify the entire corporate directory: names, PBX extensions, e-mail addresses and log-ons.

Use speech technology for self-service via the telephone. Voice portals let you get to information using natural language. Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 helps deliver communications through speech-enabled, self-service applications via the telephone.

Phone calls become digital assets. You can log, review, publish and archive voice conversations and messages. Having records and recordings of every phone call is growing increasingly important as businesses attempt to fulfill legal and regulatory requirements.

-P.V.

Promise or Peril?
So where does the large and diverse community of independent software vendors (ISVs) stand on the issue? Microsoft has been pushing unified communications (UC) in one form or another for at least five years, with little market acceptance outside of call centers. In 2004, it released Microsoft Speech Server, which was meant to help you route e-mails to your voicemail system and aggregate calls from several different numbers to a central repository.

That announcement also included the notion of a partner ecosystem. At the time, Microsoft announced new business alliances with Hewlett-Packard Co., Motorola Inc. and Siemens AG to deliver on its vision of unified communications. HP provides hardware devices and systems-integration services for new and enhanced products based on Microsoft's UC platform. Motorola delivers mobile devices and network hardware. Siemens works to transform telephony, audio-, video- and Web-conferencing services, instant messaging and e-mail into a single UC platform. The goal was to deliver a platform for routing communications to specific devices based on the needs of the individual at that moment.

Why should large IT shops care? Today, responsibility for enterprise communications is broken up among different groups, including server, telecom and even facilities. The ability to bring responsibility for enterprise communications under a single umbrella can bring significant efficiencies for enterprises as they seek to maximize investments in telecommunications, Internet and complementary technologies.

As far as users are concerned, the need for myriad gadgets hanging from their belts becomes a thing of the past. No longer do users have to battle phone, e-mail, IM, text and other communication formats. There's also the potential for fewer support calls to make devices work together.

Today, how we communicate depends on both the medium and the device. For example, for a Web meeting, we typically use a computer to transmit and receive presentation slides or demonstration views. We use a telephone for the audio portion. We can record both -- either with software or a voice-recording device -- but merging the recordings requires mixing software or a studio. We should be able to do all of that from a single device, using integrated software and approaches. Microsoft wants that device to be the PC, and is delivering tools and roadmaps to help make that happen.

Will the ISVs Be There?
ISVs that specialize in communications have good reason to support Microsoft, especially those serving markets like call centers. There's good business supporting Microsoft's initiatives, especially those clearly on a growth track, such as unified communications.

Most communications vendors are treading carefully. The initiative is broad and encompassing, so almost every vendor working with Microsoft on UC is now examining their core competencies and determining where they fit in. That may be the most difficult thing for ISVs -- figuring out how and where their technologies and strategic direction fit with Microsoft's roadmap and architecture.

Even those committed to supporting the Microsoft platform are taking it a step at a time.

"It's a broad and ambitious vision," says Robert Clark, an analyst for Technology Strategy Research. "There are many parts to it. Individual vendors can't support all of them, or even a big chunk of them. They have to look at their core competencies as well as Microsoft's grand plan, and see where the touch points exist."

There's even more to consider. Microsoft is experienced with the technology practice of "co-opetition" with partners in specific markets, so ISVs also have to ask whether or not they can add unique value in an area Microsoft is unlikely to enter in the near term. More often than not, they have to devote a significant amount of resources to keep up with new Microsoft platforms and stay ahead of competitive offerings.

Standards are a big factor. Emerging technologies -- VoiceXML, the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), service-oriented architecture (SOA) standards and the H.323 bill before the U.S. House of Representatives -- will help vendors better understand how they can work together. Microsoft is better at supporting standards than it has been in the past. It's also more willing to work within the confines of those standards. This makes it easier for partners to fill in the missing pieces of Redmond's solutions.

Microsoft cites many industry partners who are contributing technologies and services in the fulfillment of its roadmap. In fact, this list of partners is so long that it's natural to wonder if the company simply accepted everyone who asked to be a partner, or if there's a grand strategy behind those extensive partnerships.

One path ISVs can pursue is to adapt existing products to ensure users are more productive. For example, Quest Software Inc. has enhanced its MessageStats and

Password Manager products to integrate with Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007. Quest customers can use the MessageStats Report Pack in that server software to assess the cost-efficiency of their UC environment. The voice-driven version of Quest Password Manager lets users reset passwords over the phone. These steps are real improvements in IT responsiveness and productivity.

HP has singled out Office Communications Server 2007 support as a part of its UC strategy. "Office Communications Server 2007 speeds up the process of real-time communications and transforms it into real-time business," explains Mike Grady, portfolio manager for HP services, consulting and integration, Microsoft messaging and unified communications. Besides supporting this and other off-the-shelf systems and other hardware, the company focuses on bringing value-added services and software to the Microsoft solution. HP also tests Office Communications Server with different hardware and in different configurations.

One area that could contribute effectively to UC is application development. One vendor supporting Microsoft's strategy through integration with its premier Visual Studio development environment is Envox Group. The company's CT ADE is a widely used interactive voice response tool for building applications using UC technologies. It can create IP communications solutions, including video messaging, short message service (SMS) and conferencing solutions, and can leverage Microsoft .NET technologies in building complete Windows-integrated applications.

ISVs like Envox look to Microsoft and other vendors to provide a platform for applications and services. These vendors typically pick the segment or component where they can add the most value for the most users.

"Office Communications Server offers the best way for us to work with Microsoft technologies," says John Joseph, Envox's vice president of marketing. "In time, it will be thought of as a kind of switch for communications between the end user and the transport."

Joseph believes that, in time, the term "unified communications" will become a misnomer. "It will just be communications," he predicts. Whether voice, data or some combination -- it won't matter to the user, who will have a single device to access all communications.

Of course, some ISVs are practicing a similar form of co-opetition as Microsoft. Cisco Systems Inc., for example, is a Microsoft partner in its UC strategy. It's also pursuing a similar path of its own. Cisco takes a hardware focus, which both capitalizes on its strengths and differentiates itself from Microsoft by working lower in the communications stack.

At the foundation of the Cisco UC solution is its Cisco Unified Communications Manager. Many of the solutions on top of that product, such as Microsoft Windows, are either provided by partners or offer a large additional hardware component. The Unified Communications Manager provides call processing for different combinations of applications, devices, networks and operating systems, bringing together data and communications into a single point. The value of the product, however, depends on both the server OS and the communications applications.

The co-opetition between Microsoft and Cisco is necessary because no one vendor, including Microsoft, has all the pieces. Microsoft doesn't make communications hardware, and it's a relative newcomer to the world of communications standards.

Windows is the clear software platform of choice as the integration point for communications applications. Microsoft needs the credibility offered by both hardware vendors and application vendors in order to provide a credible solution. Additionally, the company needs to win over those application vendors who have already established themselves in the telecom or data communications markets.

On the other side, Cisco has the IP hardware that's pervasive in the enterprise and across the Internet, but lacks a single OS upon which it can deliver communications. Cisco has to take the foundation for IP-based communication that it provides and make sure both the platform and applications can use it to its fullest advantage.

Moving Target
Perhaps the reason Microsoft's UC strategy hasn't yet achieved broad market appeal is because it remains a moving target. Communication has meant dramatically different things, even over the short span of four years. Efforts to unify emerging technologies and techniques are likely to be a never-ending proposition. If the goal line is always being moved forward, Microsoft has to modify the details of its message almost annually. That's not conducive to convincing organizations its approach isn't vaporware.

Another obstacle is that unified communications sounds nice on paper, but few groups use all the different media it encompasses. For many interested in bringing together two or three communications platforms, the entire strategy and its components can be difficult to comprehend.

Even though it remains a solution in search of a problem to some extent, Microsoft's vision for unifying a wide range of communications media is an important missing link in the puzzle. It provides both direction for those implementing the solutions, and expectation management for those seeking those solutions.

Vendor support is mandatory because many of the pieces of this puzzle are beyond Microsoft's core competencies and resources. Even as Redmond defines a compelling vision of voice, IM, SMS, e-mail and other technologies integrated and accessible through a single device, it's apparent that Microsoft can't deliver on that vision alone. So while the chances are good that you'll use products like Windows and Office Communications Server as the base for your unified communications platform, the applications are likely to come from a wide variety of sources.

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