Microsoft Nears D-Day for VoIP Launch

For all of the solution providers who've said they're taking a wait-and-see approach to Microsoft's impending unified communications blitz, the wait is almost over.

Microsoft has been laying the groundwork for its march into the voice market for some time now, throwing out tantalizing tidbits along the way including a wide-ranging partnership with Nortel Networks in July, 2006, to develop integrated VoIP products and the release of the public beta of its Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 in March.

While solution providers at large have heard the rhetoric and seen hints of what's to come, they've been waiting to get their hands on Microsoft's new technology so they can appraise for themselves just how big an impact it will have on the VoIP space.

Now, for Microsoft and its solution providers, it's nearly go time.

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The Redmond, Wash.-based company on October 16 is set to unveil some of the long-awaited building blocks of its unified communications plans. At a launch event in San Francisco, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and Business Division President Jeff Raikes are set to showcase several products, including OCS 2007, which promises to bring VoIP, presence, instant messaging and conferencing together; the Office Communicator 2007 unified communications client; Office Live Meeting 2007 hosted conferencing and the RoundTable videoconferencing system.

Also on hand at the launch event will be a bevy of hardware, software and channel partners that will be working with Microsoft as part of its unified communications ecosystem.

"Our ecosystem is very important and significant because it's a competitive differentiator for us," said Pall. "We're saying that we're not going to be selling you phones and selling you software and selling you applications and selling you gateways. We're saying we're going to focus on the software platform and create a great opportunity around our software."

Microsoft has already disclosed hardware partnerships with players such as ASUS, 3Com, NEC, LG-Nortel, Samsung and Vitelix around OCS 2007.

Solution providers are a big piece of the strategy as well, and Microsoft has already invested significantly to connect its various partner communities together, Pall said.

"For the first time, communications is going to become part of the same platform that the rest of the enterprise runs on, which means that these communications partners, especially channel partners coming from a PBX background, can now start participating in a much bigger pie," said Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of the unified communications group at Microsoft.

The prospects truly open up once channel partners start marrying voice and communications with other applications such as Active Directory and Exchange.

"The fundamental opportunity here is to get the channel partners out of the silo or the communications stack that they're locked into and really have them participate in the much broader communication and collaboration opportunity, the content activity, the workflow and business process integration opportunity," Pall said. "All of those things suddenly become possible for these partners, going with this approach."

Microsoft has a cadre of solution providers trained and ready to hit the ground running come launch time, he added.

"We've gone through the recruiting efforts, the training efforts; we've been on it for a year," Pall said.

NEXT: Microsoft's chances for dominance

Those partners will find that Microsoft unified communications solutions are less expensive for customers and easier for solution providers to support, he said.

"Because you're reusing things like Active Directory and Exchange, the solutions will also be cheaper to operate," he said. "We believe we will fundamentally change the economics of the communications space."

Solution providers in the unified communications market, particularly those working with other vendors, are bracing for the Microsoft impact.

"Anybody that ignores that company does so at their own peril," said Mark Essayian, owner of KME Systems, a VoIP solution provider in Lake Forest, Calif. "Microsoft is going to be a big contender."

Microsoft's success in the market is by no means a given, Essayian said.

"They've entered a few arenas and fallen down, but I don' think they will with this," he said. "Microsoft can be an even bigger competitor than Cisco [Systems], but I don't know that customers will want to implement Microsoft [unified communications] systems at the 300 to 400 seat level."

Steve Marks, president and general manager of Starnet Data Design, a solution provider in Westlake Village, Calif., has a dimmer view of Microsoft's prospects, particularly in the mid-market.

"I think it's going to e a struggle for them, honestly," Marks said. "I don't know that SMBs will have enough staff to support it."

The leg up that Microsoft's unified communications rivals have is that they are already entrenched in the market, Essayian said.

"The 3Coms and Ciscos of the world understand that they have to stay ahead of the competition. Microsoft has to catch up," Essayian said.

That's exactly the point Cisco makes when laying out reasons why it thinks it's got Microsoft beat.

"We've got unmatched experience in VoIP and unified communications," said Richard McLeod, director of unified communications solutions for worldwide channels at Cisco, San Jose, Calif., during the recent launch of Cisco's own efforts to build an ecosystem that brings its channel partners together with ISV partners.

He also pointed to the breadth and depth of Cisco's end-to-end offerings, and the blood, sweat and tears Cisco has expended to build up a support infrastructure around VoIP. "We have award-winning support that we've build for partners and customers over seven years, and that doesn't come easy," McLeod said.

As they butt heads in the unified communications space, there are two things Cisco and Microsoft seem to agree on. One is that customers expect and demand technologies from the two companies to interoperate. The other is that someone has to put all of these pieces together, meaning the channel's collective star is on the rise.

"We do more engineering work with Microsoft because they need to make sure everything they're doing works through the backbone of the Internet," said Edison Peres, Cisco vice president and chief go-to-market officer for worldwide channels. "Customers want Cisco and Microsoft managed end to end. The bottom line is that partners will be much more relevant."