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Microsoft unified communications plan could stall IP telephony users

Microsoft lifts veil on roadmap to total IP telephony dominance with plans to introduce an end-to-end unified communications platform for enterprises. When products are available it will be going head to head with the likes of IPT vendors Cisco and Avaya.

FUD dropped with a massive thud this week when Microsoft unveiled an end-to-end unified communications strategy that stands to paralyze would-be IP telephony adopters for at least the next year.

It's not dazzling technology that will cause Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) among those network architects charged with designing and implementing their organizations' new IP telephony (IPT) deployments. Microsoft's announcement was largely strategy, promises and vaporware, with a little bit of renamed and existing product thrown in the mix.

It's the fact that the announcement came from Microsoft, and there are very few enterprises today that will not first consider what the software giant has – or will have – to offer before making a final decision. Microsoft is not delivering its products until sometime next year, however, leaving a long time for these architects to ponder.

Microsoft's news also comes at a time when several events are already causing IPT market turmoil and together could cause potential adopters to scratch their heads instead of reaching into their pockets.

"The main effect Microsoft's announcement is going to have in the next year is a lot of FUD," says Brian Riggs, principal analyst with Current Analysis. "There are huge upheavals in the communications market right now. We have Nortel still struggling with layoffs announced this week. Siemens' enterprise group is on the block since last week's merger with Nokia;. Now we've got Microsoft .... This will cause users to sit back if they can -- and many can -- and watch how things play out."

With Microsoft's release still a year out, and IP telephony not at the top of everyone's priority list, this gives users an excuse to delay making a decision until Microsoft's products are available.
Zeus Kerravala
VP of infrastructure and security researchYankee Group
Microsoft's roadmap should also give the competition something to sweat about, however. In many instances, products included in Microsoft's unified communications roadmap will compete directly with established IPT vendors such as Cisco, Avaya, Nortel, Siemens and Mitel, which have earned their stripes by pushing a fledgling market toward maturity for the past seven years.

From the point of view of these companies, the two most disturbing pieces of the announcement are the Microsoft Office Communicator phone experience and the plan to offer hardware in the form of PC peripheral devices such as USB handsets, wireless USB headsets, USB webcams and PC monitors with built-in audio and video components.

Other products in the lineup include Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 (which is Live Communication Server renamed), Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 unified messaging, Microsoft Office Communicator 2007, Microsoft Office Live Meeting, and Microsoft Office RoundTable.

The Communicator phone experience is communicator-based software designed to run a set of new voice and video devices -- including business-enabled IP desktop phones. This call-control software essentially takes the bread-and-butter call-control products from Cisco, Avaya and others out of the enterprise unified communications equation. These offerings aren't due until 2007, though, giving would-be users a lot of time to think.

"The traditional vendors such as Cisco and Avaya should be concerned about Microsoft's announced roadmap," said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with Yankee Group. "With Microsoft's release still a year out, and IP telephony not at the top of everyone's priority list, this gives users an excuse to delay making a decision until Microsoft's products are generally available."

For More Information
Read more about Microsoft's and Cisco's collaboration plans
Kerravala added that purchase delays could have a short-term impact on the financial performance of the major IPT vendors -- "especially Cisco, where much of the sales of other products, such as upgrades to network switches, are tied to IPT implementations," he said.

At the same time, Kerravala pointed out that voice and collaboration is moving to the desktop and user experience will become one of the keys to determining winners and losers. "And nobody understands user experience like Microsoft does," he said. "The company has a monopoly on the desktop and that's where the experience will live."

Throwing an even greater shadow of paralysis on what was looking to be a shining year for IPT is the ever-present doubt about the reliability of fresh products that Microsoft brings to market.

"Corporate buyers should be realistic about the quality of what they get from Microsoft," Kerravala said. "From Microsoft's initial offering in the market, historically they eventually get their products right, but release 1.0 of their products have typically been less than business ready."

Some examples include Exchange, Active Directory, Proxy Server, ISA Server, and even Windows itself.

"We're talking about the company that has made rebooting of the PC a regular part of our lives, given us blue screens, given us an email platform and operating system that is highly susceptible to virus attacks, and whose operating system all of the PBX vendors are migrating away from in favor of Linux," said Current Analysis' Riggs. "Microsoft needs to make sure it can provide a voice system that is as reliable as the PBX voice system, and in this wave of products they will not have that. Maybe in two years and beyond, but right now they won't. This is just the beginning of the road for Microsoft."

Furthermore, call-control features identified in Microsoft's roadmap fall short when compared with established products from companies such as Cisco and Avaya. Microsoft's software approach needs to have the same reliability features as the competition, such that one server can fail over to another one so a call isn't lost.

"That's something that the PBX companies have dealt with and perfected over the years," Riggs said. "When the WAN line goes down, what happens to that branch? In the early days of branch office PBX, the branch office got nothing. This is the sort of thing that PBX vendors have nailed down. I didn't see any talk of reliability."

For its part, as expected, Cisco downplayed the competitive aspect of Microsoft's announcement.

"The relationship with Microsoft and Cisco is deep. We share roadmaps together. So, for example, in March we briefed Microsoft about our announcement and they briefed us about this week's announcement," said Barry O'Sullivan, Cisco's vice president and general manager, IP Communications Group. "I don't see [Microsoft's roadmap] delaying anything."

According to O'Sullivan, Cisco is comfortable in its established role as IPT market leader, and the company is seeing a huge acceleration of adoption, noting that it took three years to ship a million IP phones, and then the most recent million took three months.

"We've built the integration with Microsoft so if people want Microsoft for email and IM (instant messaging), and Cisco for call control, they can do that today," O'Sullivan said. "It's 90% cooperation and 10% overlap [between Microsoft and Cisco]. That's the way I see it."

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