Microsoft Begins Carving Out A Voice Channel

Microsoft's unified communication strategy is set to take off this fall with the launch of Office Communication Server 2007, the successor to Live Communication Server, which weaves together email, instant messaging, mobile and VoIP telephony, and videoconferencing.

The release will enable voice over IP and represents "a huge step" for Microsoft into the unified communication space, said Chris Capossela, corporate vice president of the Microsoft Business Division Product Management Group.

In a keynote speech Tuesday at Microsoft's worldwide partner conference in Denver, Capossela described the partner opportunity around unified communication as "massive."

But launching Office Communication Server 2007 is only the first step. Microsoft also needs partners that can deliver VoIP and professional services necessary to make its unified communication strategy work.

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In fact, Capossela said the search for professional services expertise around VoIP was one of the main motivations behind Microsoft's partnership with Nortel, which was unveiled last year.

Microsoft and Nortel are developing joint sales and marketing programs and building an ecosystem of ISVs, systems integrators and telephony partners to deliver joint solutions to customers.

"They wanted to transform their business into providing professional services around this space, and we need professional services deeply in this space," Capossela said.

One of the main challenges Microsoft faces with VoIP and unified communications is the fact that it requires the cooperation and teamwork of workers with different IT skills, Capossela said.

"A messaging administrator is different than an IT telephony professional, and they have different buying patterns. But we think that will change and start to come together as software plays a more dominant role in these types of solutions," Capossela said.

Jay Lendl, vice president of Microsoft services at Granite Pointe Partners, Plymouth, Minn., said the participation of partners with disparate areas of technical expertise will be the most important factor in the success of the UC strategy.

"You've got classic telephony people, and then you've got folks on Exchange, and platform services people. For customers today, it's difficult to understand who the specialist is, and who they should work with. So, I think the voice specialization really helps create a focus for the partner for how to get recognized," said Lendl.

Travis Fisher, executive vice president at Inacom Information Systems, Salisbury, Md., is on board with Microsoft's unified communications plans but thinks the vendor missed an opportunity by only offering unified messaging through the enterprise version of Exchange Server 2007.

"We have a lot of clients who use phone vendors other than ourselves, and if we could offer [unified messaging] on a standard Exchange server that they have already budgeted for, it would be a no-brainer sale to add a few dollars to their CAL to enable [unified messaging] functionality," he said.

To meet the challenge of recruiting skilled VoIP partners, Microsoft will be using the same recruitment strategy it used for the Office System around SharePoint and the Office client, Capossela said. "We need to repeat that, this time in the telephony space, which means attracting and talking to a whole different set of folks," he said.

Microsoft has also established partnerships beyond the Nortel alliance that will help it accelerate growth of its VoIP partner ranks, said Capossela, although he didn't elaborate. "We're not just working this by ourselves," he said.

In any event, Microsoft is well entrenched for the coming battle for leadership of the unified communication market, says Mark Picknell, chief information officer at GoIWx, a solution provider in Plymouth, Minn.

"They're definitely not going to give up that market easily," Picknell said. "Microsoft has an enormous amount of R&D money, and when they want something, it's not long before they own it, or strategically partner with major players in order to stay ahead of the marketplace."