Partners Bulking Up Ahead Of Microsoft VoIP Launch

Channel partners are gearing up for the flood of new business opportunities expected to flow their way as Microsoft jumps into the VoIP market with its long-awaited unified communications portfolio.

Solution providers expect to see significant sales growth as a result of the product launch, including the debut of Microsoft's Office Communications Server (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.

Lest anyone doubts how seriously Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft is taking its push into the voice market -- which the company has estimated to be a $45 billion opportunity by 2010 -- Chairman Bill Gates plans to raise the curtain himself at a launch event on October 16 in San Francisco.

For Microsoft solution providers that aren't yet playing in the VoIP market, the new product portfolio represents an opportunity to take advantage of one of the fastest growing technology markets. But in order to reap the rewards, partners know they need to plunk down some cash, building up their skill sets with internal investments.

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"For the past 18 months we have been investing significant capital to [build] our technical and sales teams to capitalize on what we believe is the biggest wave to hit the industry in years, and that's Microsoft unified communications," said Bill Vollerthum, president and CEO of Enabling Technologies, a Microsoft Gold partner in Glen Arm, Md.

Thus far Enabling Technologies has spent at least $250,000 in training, particularly as its works to add more technical skills to its sales force. It has also added nine new employees and invested in products

Vollerthum knows he'll have to exercise some patience, as Microsoft won't take the market by storm overnight.

"Working in the real-time communications space can be daunting. The products need to be mature," Vollerthum said. "Customers will take small steps with this, and not all PBX platforms will play nicely with the OCS products."

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Vollerthum expects to be rolling out a lot of proof-of-concept projects over the next 12 months to 18 months as customers get their heads around the new technology and start to put it through its paces.

But for his trouble, Vollerthum expects to see business grow by 35 percent this year and by more than 50 percent next year, driven by the new Microsoft products and the special attention he expects Enabling Technologies to receive as one of the vendor's top unified communications partners. Currently Microsoft makes up about 15 percent of Enabling Technologies' $9 million in sales, but should climb to 40 percent to 50 percent of revenue next year, he said.

Vollerthum isn't alone in his anticipation of the Microsoft unified communications opportunity.

Nortel Networks VoIP solution provider Integration Partners has joined the Microsoft partner program in order to capitalize on the unified communications partnership Microsoft and Nortel forged in 2006.

"The Microsoft piece has definitely helped us get out to customers that maybe otherwise wouldn't have entertained talking to us," said Bart Graf, co-founder, director and principal of the Lexington, Mass.-based company. "And now that there is some understanding of the capabilities [brought by joint Microsoft/Nortel solutions], we've done some early demos and seen people's interest become more real."

Integration Partners has also added personnel and invested in training. Graf said he couldn't yet quantify the investment, but said "it's going to be heavy."

For solution providers like Graf and Vollerthum, the importance of partnership is also becoming clear. Both said they are forging relationships with other players in the Microsoft channel in order to provide full solutions. Integration Partners, for example, is bringing its Nortel experience to bear as it seeks application expertise from other Microsoft partners, while Enabling Technologies has teamed with 10 global systems integrators with expertise in Microsoft wares such as SharePoint, SQL Server and Dynamics.

That means solution providers expect to rely on each other to help them realize the full potential of Microsoft's unified communications strategy.

"We're betting the house that this [unified communications opportunity] is going to propel our business," Vollerthum said.