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Microsoft OCS powerful but needs third parties for complete solution

Microsoft OCS gives enterprises much of the unified communications capability they need, but to truly tap into UC's power, they must also look to third parties.

Microsoft has boasted that its Office Communications Server is robust enough to replace PBX systems and serve as the enterprise communications hub, but experts say OCS adopters will need third-party integration to tap into their full unified communications (UC) potential.

"We have seen pretty high interest in OCS, but mostly as an instant messaging platform," said Irwin Lazar, an analyst with Nemertes. "The idea that Microsoft is going to replace your PBX and reduce the cost of IP telephony [by] half -- we just don't see enterprises putting a whole lot of stock in that."

In many areas, Lazar said, enterprises are sticking with key third-party vendors that integrate well with OCS to get the functionality or reliability they need, particularly if their UC demands go beyond the basics.

Microsoft has been quietly, but unsuccessfully, pushing the use of OCS to handle and route calls with a softphone setup, according to Alex Lewis, principal consultant with Convergent Computing and author of an upcoming book on OCS.

"I'm not sure that people are willing to trust Microsoft as using OCS as a PBX," Lewis said. Voice is far too mission-critical, and enterprises demand the reliability offered by traditional PBX vendors. They can't afford a server crash taking away their phone systems.

Microsoft has acknowledged this reality by tightly partnering with Nortel on its OCS platform and announcing plans to achieve OCS interoperability with other leading PBX vendors by the end of the year.

Audio and videoconferencing is another area where enterprises should consider third-party solutions, particularly if they want video technology that can connect to parties outside the corporate network. Lazar said that the basic desktop conference functionalities of OCS were good but limited in their ability to interoperate with users outside the firewall.

Mobility, the true killer UC application, according to Lazar and Lewis, has been developing quickly. Like video and PBX, it is an area where the market will see some early third-party integration, like the debut of WebMessenger Mobile on the BlackBerry, which taps into Microsoft's open API for OCS.

UC features such as "find me, follow me" one-number capability, unified messaging, and mobile presence are all very attractive to the enterprise, Lazar said, but they are currently difficult to deliver with Microsoft alone.

"These are capabilities you can develop through OCS, but it's not off the shelf right now," he said. "Partners can write applications that can tap into OCS, and we're starting to see that ecosystem build around vertical specific applications."

This third-party ecosystem is still largely in its infancy, Lazar said, but Microsoft is trying to push it to maturity by launching a formal developer community online.

"[Microsoft] has to build these vertical or horizontal applications, so [it's] spending a lot of time trying to build up these developer communities," he said. "It's a huge component, but it's also a huge differentiator."

Lewis also said that mobile development, both from within Microsoft and from without, was critical to UC success.

"Everything is going mobile, and only a very small percentage of people work in front of a desk all the time anymore," Lewis said. "All the vendors, not just Microsoft, need to step up and deliver for that."

Related links:
Blog: Planning capacity and bandwidth for OCS 2007

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