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Microsoft Ups The Value-Add
But what may really change the game for solution providers in the near future is Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007, which is now VoIP-ready, opening up the potential for integrating various client applications with VoIP services.
Office Communications Server 2007 will provide users with the ability to communicate between Microsoft Office applications. For instance, whenever users look at e-mails in Outlook, they will be able to see presence information on the senders. They also will be able to see whether other users are available on the network. By simply getting presence information from Outlook, users are able to jump right into voice conversations.
Presence information comes embedded in most Office applications, but Office 2007 apps offer the best integration capabilities. For instance, users can easily identify the status of co-workers by looking at icons on Outlook 2007, and the new Office 2007 ribbon has features that allow users to send instant messages or make direct calls.
Out of the gate, VoIP service providers will not be able to directly connect via Office Communications Server to VoIP handsets. Microsoft is working with LG-Nortel and Polycom on the next-generation phones that will come bundled with presence awareness so, for example, users will be able to receive text messages on the phone's LCD or get presence information from the network.
In the meantime, savvy solution providers would be able to merge these technologies by developing solutions with the Office Communications Server APIs, and Microsoft is making code samples available at MSDN.
Microsoft out of the box has integrated Office Communications Server with its OneNote application to enable users to make notes during conversations. OneNote can collect contact names in the call and even make available the history of conversations from Outlook. Office Communications Server also can facilitate multiparty audio-conferencing, as long as audio-conferencing is available from the VoIP service provider. Customers running Active Directory, which Office Communications Server relies on to maintain presence information, will be able to use these presence capabilities right away.
Unified Communications A Key Incentive
Alex Freund, president of 4IT, a Palmetto Bay, Fla.-based solution provider, said he thinks unified communications will be a major incentive for businesses to get Office Communications Server. "Under the VoIP banner, everything is going to fall into a PC-based file," he said. "Someone who is working out of their main office in Colorado will be able through Outlook Web access to get their e-mail, their voice mail."
But Freund also said that the technical demands of Microsoft Office Communications Server may lead to a cost barrier for many small and some midcap businesses. "You can deploy it in the SBS market, but you're looking at another copy of Windows Server 2003, another box and another application product that has to be put on the box. It's not an insignificant financial investment," he said.
That may be. But VARs that may not want to jump into IP-PBX deployments will still be able to find plenty of ways to add value around hosted VoIP and, as costs come down, opportunities around unified communications are likely to grow.
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