Open platforms are essential to the future of unified communications

At VoiceCon Orlando 2008, keynote speakers stressed the importance of openness and interoperability of unified communications platforms.

In the unified communications (UC) arena, industry heavyweights are urging a new era of openness and interoperability -- so long as their own platforms are at the center of everything.

This message of openness was stressed during several keynote addresses at VoiceCon Orlando 2008 this week, including one from an unlikely source – Microsoft.

During his keynote presentation on Tuesday, Gurdeep Pall, corporate vice president of Microsoft's unified communications group, said openness, interoperability and integration were essential for telecommunications managers who are looking to move their companies forward.

Pall said that 25 years ago the telecommunications industry was not an integrated industry. Companies bought all their equipment and applications from one vendor. He said that era should be over.

"What's disappointing to me is you've been shown a better model, based on the IT networks of today," he said. "But you still have folks operating on this model and they've actually extended this model. This insults my intelligence."

Microsoft is seeking to tip over the integrated communications stack so that companies acquire different elements of their communications technology, such as hardware and software, from different vendors, Pall said. Such stratification in the industry will foster competition, which in turn will drive innovation.

Pall stressed the interoperability of Microsoft's Open Communications Software (OCS) platform. He claimed that in the five months since OCS was released, 35% of Fortune 500 companies have adopted it.

Pall announced new partnerships with Polycom and Tandberg aimed at integrated video into the OCS platform. He also announced that Nortel has integrated its telephony technology with OCS, and he described a roadmap wherein other leading vendors such as Avaya will also develop integration with OCS.

"It looks like they're looking at a future where they anticipate enterprises will ultimately abandon their IP-PBXs and standardize on the OCS platform for all their communications and application needs, including telephony," said Mark Cortner, senior analyst with the Burton Group.

Cortner said Microsoft's bravado during its keynote was noteworthy. In the past, he said, "[Microsoft] has been very cautious and conservative with respect to its voice strategy."

This year, Pall and his colleagues took some not-so-subtle shots at Cisco. While demonstrating how OCS integrates with Tandberg and Polycom's video technology, Pall joked with Warren Barkley, a senior director of UC at Microsoft. He asked whether the video demonstration cost $300,000, an allusion to the high price of Cisco's high-profile telepresence technology. Barkley quipped back that the $300,000 was only for the software connection fee. This drew some snickers from the crowd.

"They took some shots at Cisco while avoiding any direct criticism of any traditional telephony vendors such as Avaya, Nortel or Siemens," Cortner said. "This shows you who they perceive as the most serious threat to their UC strategy -- Cisco."

On Wednesday, Mike Rhodin, general manager of IBM Lotus software, also stressed the importance of open platforms in UC. He took his own shot at Microsoft, saying: "Microsoft made a pledge of openness, interoperability and integration across their platform. The times are quickly changing."

Rhodin stressed that IBM, with its Lotus and SameTime technologies, has been promoting an open platform for a long time. IBM has been integrated with companies like Polycom and Tandberg. The rest of the industry is just playing catch-up, he said.

More on open platforms in communications
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SameTime 8.0, shipped last November, integrates with public instant messaging platforms, Rhodin pointed out. He said 33% of new customers this year were Microsoft Exchange and Office shops, demonstrating just how open the platform is.

IBM has long-established partnerships with the telecom vendors that Microsoft is just starting to integrate with, he said. IBM is adding new partnership with NEC, ShoreTel and Ericsson, along with some new software partnerships, such as Forterra Systems, a maker of virtual collaboration software similar to Second Life.

Rhodin said there are five keys to the future of UC. Virtual workplaces are here to stay, due to globalization, he said, and collaboration will continue to be integrated into real-time business processes.

The next generation of workers will expect cutting-edge technologies like SameTime and Lotus, Rhodin said. They view email as archaic. New models of how people meet, such as video and virtual worlds, will become more important as companies seek to make meetings more effective, he said.

And interoperability and open standards will continue to be requirements for his platform and others, Rhodin said, adding that public instant messaging platforms need to come out of their walled gardens.

And if Microsoft is preaching it, it must be time.

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