Gates Launches Microsoft VoIP Portfolio, Predicts Demise of PBX

After much hype and anticipation, Microsoft Tuesday staked its claim to the VoIP market as Chairman Bill Gates launched the vendor's unified communications portfolio.

Gates at an event in San Francisco heralded what he positioned as a dramatic shift in the business communications paradigm.

"The transformation to software-based communications is going to be as profound as the shift from the typewriter to word-processing software," Gates said.

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Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's Business Division, called the product rollout "a big R&D bet for Microsoft."

"The era of dialing blind, the era of playing phone tag, the era of voicemail jail ... that era is ending," Raikes said.

Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft announced the availability of several long-awaited products including 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.

QUICK POLL The launch marks Microsoft's definitive entrance into the VoIP market, placing it squarely in the path of somtimes-partner Cisco Systems. While initially customers are expected to deploy Microsoft's unified communications offerings alongside their existing legacy or IP-based PBXes to utilize those investments, Gates foresees a future where Microsoft software is all customers will need to control their phone calls.

"Overtime, the lowest cost structure will be to not have the PBX, to simply rely on the software and the Internet connection as the way that communications works," Gates said.

The PBX and the desktop phone have stood out as modes of communication that have not made the leap into the digital world, Gates said.

"It's our view that whenever you show the name of an employee, of course you should see the presence and be able to right-click to get in touch with all of the different communications modalities, so any application that you've got can benefit," Gates said

As a result of deploying Microsoft's unified communications portfolio, customers will see cost savings in areas such as reduced customer service hold times, cutbacks in travel and more efficient decision-making, Gates said.

In addition, customers will be able to take advantage of infrastructure investments they've already made in Microsoft products such as Exchange and Active Directory.

NEXT: Nortel, Mitel get in the act

For its part, Cisco is defending its turf by touting its ability to provide multivendor communications solutions.

"We can bring a well-tested solution that [combines] Microsoft Exchange 2007 and Apple and BlackBerry and legacy voicemail," said Richard McLeod, director of unified communications solutions for worldwide channels at Cisco, San Jose, Calif. "It's a superior solution for customers."

During a live demonstration at the event, Microsoft showed how a user could tap into a multitude of its products, including Outlook Voice Access speech recognition interface, Outlook Mobile and Communicator to conduct business from the road. The vendor's click-to-call interface allows users to see the presence of co-workers and other contacts and communicate with them via phone call, IM or videoconference from whatever device they are on.

Setting up a multi-party video call is now as easy as dragging and dropping names from the Office Communicator contact list.

In addition to the product rollout, Raikes also revealed that 800 solution providers have attained Microsoft's unified communications specialization since it was launched four months ago.

Channel partners eager for the launch expect to pull products from a variety of vendors into Microsoft-based unified communications solutions.

Don Wisdom, president of Datalink Networks, a Microsoft partner based in Santa Clarita, Calif., plans to exploit his partnerships with Mitel and Hewlett-Packard's ProCurve networking division to build unified communications solutions.

"This is very exciting for us, as we are one of Microsoft's key partners for unified communications," Wisdom said. "Microsoft and Mitel have a very good working relationship, and we brought Mitel on because Mitel and ProCurve have a good relationship."

Mitel was one of 50 technology and services partners on hand to showcase OCS-ready offerings. The company has plans for a server built around OCS to meet the specialized needs of SMB and vertical market customers, Raikes said.

Nortel Networks, which forged a unified communications partnership with Microsoft over a year ago, rolled out a large portfolio of OCS-compatible products, including Nortel Converged Office, which integrates the telephony features of Nortel's IP-PBX with OCS and Nortel Multimedia Conferencing 5.0, which supports conferencing across a mix of client types, including desktops, analog, digital or IP phones.

Pricing for OCS is $500 for the Standard version server or $2,800 for the Enterprise version. Client support for IM and presence costs $21 per user, while the addition of conferencing and VoIP capabilities costs $97 per user. The RoundTable videoconferencing unit is priced at $3,000.