Microsoft To Take On Cisco In Unified Communications


Company to offer more details on next Live Communications Server


As if Microsoft doesn’t have enough great white whales to hunt, it’s adding Cisco Systems to the list right along with Google, IBM, Oracle and the software-as-a-service (SaaS) pioneers.

Microsoft’s move into what it calls “unified communications” will spark a turf war with powerful players, including PBX makers and Cisco, that will all attack the market from their relative positions of strength, partners said.

In the process, Microsoft and these players—most of which are also its partners—will square off for a bigger chunk of an estimated $40 billion worldwide market for voice/telephony software and infrastructure, partners say.

Microsoft will start to talk more about its plans at a unified communications event in June, said Zig Serafin, general manager of Microsoft’s Unified Communications Group (UCG). Sources said to expect more information on the next Live Communications Server (LCS).

The upcoming LCS will offer on-premise presence and instant messaging (IM), as well as audio-, video- and Web conferencing, sources said. The current LCS does IM and on-premise presence, while Web conferencing is the province of Live Meeting, a hosted service underlying Microsoft’s current Live Meeting, which grew out of Microsoft’s acquisition three years ago of Placeware.

Unlike Exchange Server 2007, the new LCS—once known by its code name, Kiev, and now referred to internally simply as Live Server—will not be 64-bit only. It will be part of the Office 2007 “wave,” Serafin said.

The public message will be one of collaboration between Microsoft and partners such as Cisco, Avaya and other makers of PBXes. Behind the scenes, though, all of those companies will compete for many of the same customer dollars.

“Do the math. The market for collaboration software is $4 billion. The market for voice is $40 billion. If you were Microsoft, where would you go?” asked a Microsoft source who requested anonymity.

The issue is that what Microsoft offers and what Cisco offers in terms of instant messaging are very similar, and few customers will buy both.

“Cisco started with voice, then added conferencing and video and voice mail. Microsoft started with Office and app integration, added presence and IM and conferencing first as a service [and] then on-premises,” the source said.
Microsoft will attack unified communications, the term it applies to converged realtime and asynchronous communications—including IM, e-mail and voice—from the application layer, while Cisco will do so from the network layer, Serafin said. That UCG organization was formed in January to meld Microsoft’s realtime collaboration and Exchange e-mail groups.

In some ways, this is an old story. Microsoft has talked up its role in what was called computer-telephony integration (CTI) for years. But with the upcoming release of new versions of LCS and related products, it’s going to turn up the volume. Microsoft’s issue here is that despite progress in reliability and security, it is unclear how many businesses really want to put all of their communications eggs in a Microsoft basket. In short, people do not want to have to reboot their phones.

Serafin said people want the type of innovation they see on their laptop and desktop to spill over into their overall communications. When is the last time you saw a radically improved desktop phone? he asked.

The growth in VoIP-enabled PBX switches—and the declining sales of proprietary switches—could help here.

Dell’Oro Group reported last week that the IP-enabled PBX category was the only growth segment among all PBX sectors for the first quarter of this year. Avaya’s IP telephone shipments grew 50 percent year over year, according to Steve Raab, researcher at Dell’Oro.

Some Microsoft partners said they welcome the company’s push with open arms, citing customer demand.

“People are sick and tired of having to go four or five places for voice mail, e-mail, text,” said Kerry Mann, president of Mantralogix, a Microsoft systems integration partner in Mississauga, Ontario. “We are looking forward to this with bated breath, although, of course, we need to see proof of concept. The proof is in the execution.”