The VoIP gloves are off in the emerging fight between Cisco and Microsoft, as each company competes for its share of a scarcely tapped unified communications – VoIP – market. According to Yankee Group, the VoIP market, including hardware devices such as IP phones and IP PBXs, has currently reached just $8 billion.
Just three weeks after Microsoft's mammoth-sized unified communications play, the company yesterday made yet another sit-up-and-pay-attention announcement when it vowed to partner with VoIP contender Nortel.
According to Microsoft and Nortel executives, the two companies will collaborate on technology, marketing and business levels. The relationship will rely heavily on Microsoft's expertise in the desktop user space, while Nortel brings to the table decades of telephony technology and telephony integration services skills to assist enterprise network engineers in their VoIP deployments.
"We will have a strong integrator channel around our unified communications platform," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said. "We're not just trying to touch the Global 100 companies but hundreds of companies around the world. So we need Nortel plus the channel to accomplish that."
Nortel and Microsoft already have collaboration efforts in place, such as integration of live communications with instant messaging (IM) and presence capabilities tied to a Nortel PBX system. "So a customer today with both products would benefit from having PC-based call control, PC calling capability, and directory integration," said Greg St. James, senior director of marketing.
Three weeks ago, Microsoft's announcement amounted to a 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.
With that announcement, Microsoft effectively eliminated the need for call control products made by its existing partners such as Cisco, Avaya, Mitel and even Nortel. Its Office Communications Server, due the first quarter of 2007, will be a software-based call center solution that no longer relies on the IP PBX. That product is scheduled for a major beta launch in September.
Some analysts say that partnerships are essential for Microsoft to make an effective unified communications power-play.
"Close partnerships with voice systems suppliers are vital to Microsoft's unified communications aspirations," said Brian Riggs, an analyst with Current Analysis. "Now that the company has clearly declared its intentions of providing businesses with communications platforms that include voice, the company needs to ensure that its voice solutions will be just as reliable as those presently on the market."
According to Riggs, enterprises stand to benefit from Microsoft-based telephony solutions that approach or equal the reliability of the current generation of PBXs because they are backed by Nortel networking infrastructure and security software.
"What remains unclear, however, is how existing voice infrastructure fits into the architecture proposed by the Microsoft-Nortel alliance," Riggs said. "How do Nortel's customers transition from the PBX systems in place today to the software-based architecture being proposed? As yet, that's an unanswered question and one that Nortel will need to clearly address before long."
The burning Survivor question now is: Who will make up the next alliance?
"Delivering unified communications involves delivering expertise in both traditional communication and understanding user experience and user workflow," said Zeus Kerravala, vice president of infrastructure at Yankee Group.
Kerravala notes that the Microsoft and Nortel team now adds to the existing partnership between Cisco and IBM and opens the door for more powerhouse VoIP pairings.
"Soon, perhaps, we'll see Avaya working with a power-partner like Apple," he said. "Unified communications is so broad that no vendor, no matter how big, now matter how VoIP experienced, can go it alone."
In a statement sent via email, Cisco said, "Cisco and Microsoft have a strong track record of collaboration around our respective products and technologies, and we continue to look for opportunities to build on these successful initiatives, and to new collaboration and integration points moving forward."