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Microsoft's OCS is finally here, for better or for worse

Zeus Kerravala reports on the long-awaited launch of Microsoft's OCS. Find out what areas end users should be cautious about and the features that will benefit organizations, regardless of their unique communication requirements.

Zeus Kerravala, vice president for enterprise infrastructure, Yankee Group

Microsoft held its long-awaited launch party for Office Communications Server (OCS) and related products on October 16 in San Francisco. After the smoke cleared and the Gibson guitar player finished his solo performance, Bill Gates and Jeff Raikes (business division president) delivered Microsoft's vision for this market, along with demos of what life could be like in a predominantly Microsoft world. From the user feedback before, during and after the launch, here are the main areas that seem to have the most immediate interest and also cause the most concern.

First, the bad -- the areas that caused concern:

Lack of traditional telephony features
This is probably the biggest area of concern that I can see from the traditional telephony world. By Microsoft's own admission, OCS isn't a full PBX replacement; rather, it's a communications platform that supports voice, video and messaging features. A typical PBX has several hundred features, of which only a handful are used by different organizations. The problem is that the handful varies from company to company, meaning that most of the features actually get used, just not by any one organization. Over time, Microsoft will add more features, probably through partnerships with telephony vendors, but for now there's a limited feature set.

OCS requires users to work differently
The way OCS works promotes making calls in a different way. For example, after dialing a number, the user needs to click on the "call" button instead of having the call automatically dialed. Moving to OCS will require some end-user retraining, and anyone who has had to go through just changing handsets knows what a big initiative this can be. I have mixed feelings on this. In the mobile phone world, we have become quite accustomed to hitting a dial button and click-to-call, so I'm not sure why it's an issue in the corporate world. In fact, most cell phones do not even have DTMF tones (those beeps you hear when you make a call), but with corporate telephony, we still need it. I think this becomes less of an issue over time, as the younger generation becomes part of the workforce. In the short term, though, be prepared to do some retraining.

Scalability of the system
Despite the lengthy beta period, OCS is new and there aren't many examples of large enterprises that are using thousands of phones in production. This is something that, over time, will become less of an issue, but most companies I've talked to do not want to "fix" a phone system that isn't really broken.

Organizational issues
OCS introduces telephony to application developers, Exchange administrators, desktop managers and other areas of IT that haven't historically cared about voice. In fact, at Citrix iForum this week, Citrix released its click-to-call capabilities; now the Citrix person has an interest. This will cause organizational challenges for companies as they determine who exactly owns UC.

The simplification or removal of the traditional desktop phone
Earlier this year, Microsoft made the bold statement that the cost of delivering telephony would be cut in half within a few years. Much of the basis for this statement was the removal of the high-cost, traditional desktop phone in favor of a desktop softphone or one of the more basic phones that Microsoft supports. Again, this may be a generational trend, but the typical corporate worker wants a desktop phone rather than only using a PC.

Now for the good -- here are the things that conference attendees generally liked:

Microsoft RoundTable
This demo held a lot of user interest, but you really need to use it to appreciate it. For those who aren't familiar with RoundTable, it's a 360-degree camera that sits in a conference room and automatically changes the view depending on who is speaking. I've done calls with it and can attest to what a great experience it gives. It's also great for playing back recorded meetings and understanding who was speaking on which points, since the camera automatically changes its view.

Unified messaging
It's interesting to me that unified messaging (UM) has been around for years now, but the overall uptake of it has been very slow. So why are people interested in it now when they weren't before? I think mobility has added an element to the market that UM never had before. If we're chained to our desk, who needs UM? Just listen to the voicemails on your phone. If you're mobile, however, having a voicemail sent to your BlackBerry lets you know immediately that you have an office voicemail, and in many cases you can listen to the message on the BlackBerry itself. I've got this up and running now, and I never need to dial into my corporate voicemail to "pick up" messages because they're delivered to me real time.

UC integrated into applications
Microsoft alluded to this and highlighted the integration with SAP's Duet software. I don't think this concept was widely understood by much of the audience, but the ones who did get it had many good ideas on how to leverage this. Over time, there will be more software with UC integrated into it, which will, in turn, drive more innovation. This is an area I wish Microsoft had spent more time on during the keynotes and demos.

Voice as an over-the-top service
I could actually categorize this in both the good and bad sections because it was among the most controversial of points. I put it in the "good" section because I like a challenge to conventional thinking. Microsoft's way of handling voice quality is very Skype-like, in that the quality and tuning is done at the endpoint device itself. This means that a bunch of stuff can happen in the middle and it remains transparent to the user. If anyone's used Skype recently, you know it works fairly well if both endpoints are Skype. However, what if the endpoints aren't all Microsoft (or Skype, in the consumer segment)? Quality becomes more of an issue, which is where the controversy arises.

Overall -- despite the hype, smoke show and guitar player rocking out -- the UC launch did what it was supposed to do. It challenged conventional thinking to consider the current voice industry as more than just a way to make calls. Compared with PCs and mobile phones, desktop telephony hasn't really evolved that much over the past 30 years. Even many of the IP-based systems are just IP versions of older systems. If you're evaluating Microsoft now, there's no deploy-everything-Microsoft overnight. Pick a couple of the areas (like RoundTable) that you can leverage immediately and that add new functionality (lower risk), and start from there.

Zeus Kerravala is a regular contributor to and manages Yankee Group's infrastructure research and consulting.

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