Microsoft VoIP Products Ready For Public Scrutiny

Microsoft later this month will open the beta testing of its Office Communications Server 2007 to the public, the company said Wednesday at VoiceCon Spring 2007.

The VoIP and unified communications server, which has been in private beta since December, is the successor to the vendor's Live Communications Server. Office Communicator 2007, Microsoft's unified communications client, will also be available via the public beta.

Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's Business Division, is scheduled to disclose the planned March beta debut Wednesday morning during a keynote address at the Orlando conference. VoiceCon is run by CMP Technology, the parent company of CRN and ChannelWeb.

Raikes will also share several Microsoft predictions on the future of the VoIP market. The company says pricing of the average IP telephony solution will drop by half within the next three years as software becomes a bigger piece of the VoIP equation. Over that same time frame, Microsoft expects 100 million people to have the ability to make calls from its Office applications, which the company says is twice the number of current business VoIP users.

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"This is a big growth area for us. It's a big bet," said Janice Kapner, director of unified communications marketing at Microsoft, Redmond, Wash.

On the product front, Office Communications Server 2007 adds new on-premise conferencing capabilities and is scheduled for release to manufacturers this summer, Kapner said.

Solution providers will be a key piece of the rollout, with some channel training already underway and an aggressive channel push planned for the summer, she said. "It's mission-critical for us to make sure they understand our products and our strategy."

While many Microsoft partners have been anxiously awaiting the public beta, others feel left out.

"If the pricing came down and the administrative and hardware requirements were brought down as well, then for sure it could have a place in the higher-end SMB market," said Marc Harrison, president of Silicon East, an SMB-focused Microsoft partner in Manalapan, N.J. "I'd love to see that."

NEXT: VoIP players battle for Microsoft's attention

With the beta release, the vendor is taking yet another step down the path toward fulfilling its unified communications vision of setting up the Microsoft desktop as the primary communications interface for users. The strategy includes not only the new products but also partnerships with IP telephony players like Avaya, Cisco Systems and Nortel Networks.

Those vendors have all been keen to tout their Microsoft relationships. Avaya President and CEO Louis D'Ambrosio and Nortel President and CEO Mike Zafirovski both showcased their respective Microsoft partnerships in keynote addresses at VoiceCon Tuesday. Charlie Giancarlo, Cisco's senior vice president and chief development officer, is expected to do the same in his keynote later Wednesday.

"The Microsoft-Nortel threat is only proportional to the technology differential between Avaya and Nortel. That's the competitive landscape, and we're very confident in our ability to win," D'Ambrosio told CRN in an interview Tuesday night. "We have comparable integration between the Microsoft desktop and Avaya [IP communications products]. We have that today."

Zafirovski during his keynote called Nortel's Innovative Communications Alliance with Microsoft "a very special alliance. We're both making investments. It's a very deep relationship with R&D elements, go-to-market elements and services."

Perhaps adding fuel to the competitive fire, Raikes is also slated to unveil the release of interoperability specifications for technology partners that want to connect their IP-PBX platforms with the two forthcoming Microsoft products via SIP.

Partnerships with the IP-PBX players are a key piece of Microsoft's communications game plan, Kapner said.

"Our biggest challenge is the perception battle about people being confident in working with Microsoft to deal with phone calls," Kapner said. "That's why we're partnering with known experts like Nortel, Avaya and others."

Kapner expects customers to be drawn to Microsoft's unified communications wares because they will work with their existing infrastructure.

"We're not trying to replace your phone. We are working with your existing infrastructure and the people who know how to do [telephony]," Kapner said.

That's not to say that Microsoft doesn't foresee a future where those infrastructure players won't be needed.

"If there's a time when that infrastructure is not required, then we will have already gained [users'] trust," Kapner added.