Unified communications (UC) has hit the tipping point. In just a few months, it's gone from over-hyped and virtually impossible to rein in to a realistic, here-and-now option to enhance business processes and boost communications capabilities.
And Microsoft is hoping to capitalize on the UC craze and bump the other UC vendors -- Cisco and Avaya, for example -- to the curb. But in a market that has no solid definition and an unpredictable direction, experts wonder where Microsoft will take its desktop software-centric UC approach and whether the salivating UC-wanting public will bite.
Next month, Microsoft will officially launch Office Communication Server (OCS) 2007, its VoIP and UC server, and Office Communicator (OC), its UC client -- two tools to take UC to the next level, embedding UC tools like instant messaging, conferencing, email, voice and presence into commonly used business applications.
"Our approach to UC is differentiated in the market," said Clint Patterson, Microsoft's director of public relations for unified communications. "Fundamentally, what unified communications is about is bringing together all of the different ways to communicate with each other. That's best done through a software interface. Capabilities should live or be embedded in applications used every day. By embedding them, communications become the jet fuel for work instead of an interruption. It's making communications happen where people work and connecting all of those different ways to communicate."
But many companies are taking on UC from a VoIP perspective, starting at the IP PBX and working toward UC that way. Microsoft is taking the opposite approach, and has boldly proclaimed that eventually the IP PBX as it is known today will disappear, and a software IP PBX will take its place.
In his keynote speech at VoiceCon Orlando earlier this year, Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business division, predicted the demise of the PBX and outlined a software-centric VoIP and UC world.
"Software-driven communication is bringing a pace that is much more dramatic," Raikes said, commenting that OCS and OC 2007 mark an inflection point where software and telephony truly come together.
Still, many experts wonder whether the UC market and the users buying into it are ready.
"Microsoft has a dominant position in the desktop market, and we see Microsoft Office Communicator increasingly becoming the desktop application dashboard, providing users with control and access to their UC applications -- voice, IM, video and Web conferencing," said Nemertes Research principal analyst and program director Irwin Lazar. "We don't see enterprises buying into Microsoft's strategy of OCS as a next-generation telephony platform just yet. All the enterprises we've spoken with in the last year are continuing to move forward with VoIP plans based on other vendors, but they expect that their VoIP systems will eventually integrate with LCS/OCS."
Microsoft's approach, Lazar said, is less dependent on the phone and isn't necessarily positioned as a PBX replacement. But Patterson sees things differently.
"As a company, we believe that software is the communications infrastructure of the future," Patterson said, adding that OCS will interoperate with about 90% of existing telephony systems and eventually allow companies to move core functions from the PBX to software.
He foresees many companies starting with an evolutionary approach: connecting OCS to the PBX to get remaining value out of that investment and, over time, moving onto a software-based model.
"We don't advocate the big jump," Patterson said, noting that it is an "uphill battle" for Microsoft to enter into a new arena like VoIP and convince organizations that software is at the heart of business communications instead of having those communications tools reside in the network.
"Historically, this move to VoIP was this massive, full-body transplant -- tearing everything out to roll out this Voice over IP capability … it was a massive rip and replace," Patterson said. "With software, that can be incremental."
Yankee Group senior vice president Zeus Kerravala said that the incremental, stepping-stone approach helps differentiate Microsoft from its UC peers.
"Microsoft is different," he said. "They're not selling UC as an add-on to voice. They're selling it as a core piece of what you can do on the desktop."
Kerravala added that Microsoft is focusing more on the capabilities UC can enable instead of on the product itself, by embedding communications tools into everyday business apps.
That integration could, however, open up enterprises' eyes, Lazar believes.
"I think enterprises increasingly expect to roll out either OCS or [IBM Lotus] Sametime as their IM/presence client, and integrate with their UC applications," he said. "It will be interesting to see how users embrace presence-enabled communications. If enterprises find more people are using the voice chat features of OCS versus making phone calls, they'll likely be more open to embracing Microsoft's vision of using OCS as a complete telephony/UM platform."
Burton Group senior analyst Mark Cortner said one key problem Microsoft will face on its climb up the UC mountain is determining who to sell its solutions to within an organization. Microsoft is taking a holistic approach and looking at IP telephony as a component of a broader UC strategy, so the question remains whether it will be the desktop group, the telecom group, the collaboration group or some other group in an organization that makes the key UC decisions.
"Say you're the vendor, who do you position your solutions to?" Cortner asked. "Who are the influencers?"
"Microsoft wanted more exposure to the telecom team," he said. "And the market barrier for Microsoft is to get to that team."
Convincing the telecom team is a tough job, Cortner noted, especially when Cisco and other traditional telephony vendors are making aggressive plays toward collaboration and UC.
"I'm not sure that enterprises aren't prepared or ready for a software-based solution," he said. "The current generations of IP PBXs are software-based solutions with some hardware. The concern is less that it's software-centric and more about people's perceptions that the PBX is rock solid and never goes down. Microsoft is the opposite of that. Their first battle is that perception."
And that perception is what will make the market interesting going forward, Kerravala said, noting that "there's room for everyone." Avaya and Cisco are also major players in the UC space. And despite Microsoft's belief that it will wear the UC crown once OCS launches next month, Kerravala said the software maker may have a surprise or two coming.
"Contrary to Microsoft's belief, it's not going to be only Microsoft that people want to run," he said.
But Microsoft is smart in that it's letting partners do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to UC, where most competing vendors fall short on letting it be ecosystem driven. Microsoft understands the value of partners, Kerravala added, and prioritizes around that give and take.
Microsoft's Patterson agreed.
"In this move to software, you have a wave of partners," he said, adding that Microsoft has nine partners building peripheral endpoints for OCS to create the UC ecosystem. Furthermore, Microsoft's acquisition of niche communications vendors like TellMe, a voice recognition tool, and Parlano, a group chat solution, round out the offering. "This entire ecosystem will start to evolve through partners."
Cortner added: "Microsoft's success will be the integration with partners they have today."
Along with partnering, the market will shift to favor Microsoft because of its recognizable name, Kerravala said. While IBM also has a solid stake in the UC game, it trails Microsoft in mindshare, which can make a key difference. Avaya, too, is taking a software approach of its own, and Cisco recognizes the need for it but hasn't yet put the tools in place to bring that vision to fruition.
"The more [UC] becomes a software game, the more it favors Microsoft," Kerravala said. "Microsoft will hold the desktop, but others will fill different areas."