Microsoft GM Scopes Out New Tools For Unified Communications Push


The brave new world of unified communications will spur demand for new tools. And programming a system that combines PBX functionality, voice and data communication -- in real time and asynchronous -- is no small feat.

At Microsoft, Kirt Debique is the guy in charge of all that.

Debique has been general manager of Microsoft's Unified Communications Applications Server (or UCAS) team since November and has been with the company nearly 15 years. For those who need pedigrees, he's one of the Vista WAVE (Windows Audio Visual Excellence) guys. He has worked a lot in replication and distributed file systems and on the APIs in the 32-bit operating system kernel. (For more on Debique and WAVE, see this Channel 9 video.)

At this point, Debique isn't talking in too much detail about planned UC tools or how they will be delivered -- that must wait for Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference in October, he said. Still, he understands the budding curiosity among third-party developers and systems integrators who want to build atop the UC infrastructure and tie other products to it.

Microsoft is pitching its UC gear -- currently Live Communications Server and its soon-to-come successor, Office Communications Server 2007 -- as a platform, and Debique said Microsoft must provide a "great platform experience."

"When people think of platform, they focus on the APIs. While that's the center of gravity, thinking broadly, there must be a focus on things like tools, manageability and deployability, [which is] especially important in this space to all personas: the developer, the IT pro and the end customer," Debique told CRN. "This is a space where it's really important to make sure the connection between the application, the administration and the deployment of the application is very strong."

It's also important to think about how a developer debugs the work and what all of that means for packaging, Debique added.

One longtime integrator couldn't agree more. Microsoft needs a series of Visual Studio plug-ins to help developers incorporate UC features into their applications, said the integrator, who requested anonymity. These plug-ins would accommodate next-generation TAPI and MAPI telephony and messaging APIs, he said.

"Programming both PBX functionality and rich codecs is complex, and getting good performance is nontrivial," the integrator said. "Microsoft has to make these tasks easy for developers."

That message rings especially true considering the nature of UC, which converges the traditional functions of phones into a PC-centric model. Say what you will about old time phones, but their uptime is virtually 100 percent. Business professionals will have zero patience for a VoIP-based phone system that doesn't yield a dial tone, regardless of how many other instant messaging, Web conferencing and whiteboarding bells and whistles come with it. People need their phone to work -- without rebooting.

The integrator, who's close to Microsoft, said there was internal debate at the company about whether relevant tool deliverables would come from the Visual Studio group or the Unified Communications Group (UCG). Most likely they will derive from both, since the Visual Studio.Net framework allows plug-ins, he said. His take is that the UCG group will work on the tools but end up delivering them via the Visual Studio framework.

NEXT: Where's the third-party opportunity?
As with any Microsoft platform discussion, there is great interest in where the UC platform ends and third-party opportunity begins. Debique said Microsoft will do what it traditionally does: "Take something vertical and tip it horizontal," making Office Communications Server infrastructure that can have specialized, higher-value applications built on top of it.

Or at least that's the public message.

Microsoft's UC view is that "in situ" use of presence and UC is key. "We've thought a lot about contextual collaboration," Debique said. "ployees come in, sit in front of some application and do their best work. In some cases it's our Office suite, but in manufacturing it might be a 3-D modeling application. Whatever they do every day, we want to enhance that experience."

That would mean, for example, that an engineer working in CAD all day would want a presence-enabled iteration of that product, in which he would see his colleagues or suppliers and customers on screen and immediately know the best way to reach them -- cell phone or landline, e-mail or instant messaging. He also could set up Web meetings on the fly, if need be.

"If you're in Autodesk, the presence would show up in situ right there," Debique said. "That app becomes the softphone, and we should enable that. Autodesk doesn't want to become the UC expert, but maybe our stuff would layer on there. Autodesk is the expert on that particular end user."

Microsoft's UC team already has done a lot of work in interactive voice response (IVR) by integrating it with its workflow foundation and workflow designer, according to Debique. "We need to make it easy for an IT person who has to worry about business policy and workflow and, maybe more broadly, apply the IVR stuff to the broader UC world."

Larry LeSueur, vice president of infrastructure and security solutions at Avanade, is bullish on the business opportunity that UC presents and agreed that tool adjustments must be made. "[Microsoft will] have to invest in Visual Studio Team System to make it applicable here. How do you create code within line-of-business applications to make it easier to apply presence?" he said.

"The company has done a good job around Office Communications System and MOSS [Microsoft Office Sharepoint Server] 2007, integrating presence across its own product suites. But how about third-party applications to enable presence and conferencing from OCS?" LeSueur added.

Consulting firms and integrators like Seattle-based Avanade will have their own tool sets at the ready, as well as best practices to ease UC implementation.

NEXT: Microsoft faces big competitors in UC game.

And Microsoft isn't the only game in town. IBM has been in the fray longer and is attacking UC with gusto by building on Lotus SameTime, which offers voice, instant messaging and conferencing.

"If you're a corporate developer or an ISV who wants to integrate with our UC platform, typically developers we work with don't want to be driven to a single tool choice. They want to have a lot of ways to interact with the platform," said Ken Bisconti, vice president of Lotus products for IBM.

For SameTime on the server side, IBM offers a C++ and a Java tool kit. It also offers STLinks, which are presence tags for Web pages, and a telephony service provider interface (SPI) for client-side telephony and video APIs. And then there are Eclipse plug-ins. All of these are available from IBM Developerworks, Bisconti said, adding that IBM's ISV team also works with premier ISV partners and provides them with more tool kits and interfaces.

Cisco Systems, the king of routers and now a big VoIP player, is another huge power in the UC arena. Though the networking giant partners with Microsoft and IBM on some fronts, it offers its own UC product that integrates voice, presence, instant messaging and e-mail.

Frank Albi, president of Inacom Information Systems, a Madison, Wisc.-based solution provider that partners with Cisco and Microsoft said Cisco is a "competitor in this slice in the pie."

"[Cisco] has its own UC. But they come from the traffic and routing perspective, and it is harder to write in that environment. You have to write down to TAPI and ITAPI. But on the Microsoft side, you can write to the business layer, and the APIs there are pretty standard and stable," Albi said.

"These are two big giants who will rattle their swords and battle it out," he continued. "But at the end of the day, [there will be] plenty of space for both, and I think it will accelerate the market. In my opinion, no one company is the end-all for every customer. No one buys all from one company."

Albi is a fan of the Microsoft API layer. Basically, solution providers can deploy Microsoft's UC now without any new specialized tools, but tools would be welcome.

"It would make sense for Microsoft, over time, to deploy its UC tools in Visual Studio," Albi said.