Microsoft Broadens Unified Communications Partnerships

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At VoiceCon Orlando 2008, the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant unveiled key new partnerships to leverage its unified communications solutions offered by OCS and Office Communicator, its unified communications client. Microsoft on Tuesday announced partnerships with Aspect Software, a contact center company; and pairings with both Tandberg and Polycom to deliver high-definition video solutions.

In his keynote speech, Microsoft corporate vice president of unified communications, Gurdeep Singh Pall said enterprise communications systems have evolved well beyond the need for just a dial tone. He said OCS is currently deployed in about 35 percent of Fortune 500 companies and has shown more than 200 percent growth in the last two quarters. Additionally, he said, more than 800 Microsoft partners have earned the vendor's unified communications specialization. Those milestones, Pall said, signify that unified communications is booming and companies are recognizing the need for hardware based on industry standards, an open communications software platform, interoperable applications and innovative devices.

Microsoft's partnership with Aspect Software will open the door for turnkey contact center solutions integrated with OCS, Pall said. The multi-year agreement, in place for five years, but likely to extend beyond that, will integrate OCS with Aspect's Unified IP contact center solution.

Zig Serafin, Microsoft's general manager of unified communications, said Microsoft has made an equity investment in Aspect to accelerate the development and adoption of the new solutions and services. The amount of that investment was not disclosed.

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According to Jim Foy, president and CEO of Aspect, the goal is to allow contact centers to easily interoperate with the enterprise. He said integration with OCS will enable contact center workers to utilize presence capabilities to connect customers and callers to experts located within the enterprise when the contact center along can't handle the query. Foy said currently about 10 percent of calls that come into contact centers require input from someone else inside the enterprise.

Basically, Foy said, a contact center agent can locate an expert in a single click to resolve customer issues.

"Our alliance and the resulting joint solutions are designed to enhance sales, service and support capabilities for organizations of all types and sizes, across many industries," Foy said, later adding that the joint solutions "will redefine the way companies interact with their customers."

Serafin said the goal is to offer a single software solution for the contact center and "unlock the next frontier of productivity."

Serafin said contact centers have become sort of an island for customers, with the contact center often having a different communications system than the enterprise. Partnering with Aspect, he said, will offer an opportunity to unify communications between the two camps using presence, enhanced video and instant messaging.

"It will increase the ante for what it means to provide high-quality customer service," he said.

The joint solutions will be available from both Aspect and Microsoft and their channel partners, Serafin said.

Along with the Aspect pairing, Microsoft at VoiceCon also announced new partnerships with Tandberg and Polycom to bring high-definition video into the enterprise through OCS interoperation. Integrating the two vendors' video platforms into OCS enables users to create an HD video conference just by clicking on their buddy lists. OCS integration is available across Tandberg's MXP line of video products.

Polycom solutions will register, authenticate and share presence information with OCS, meaning users can see the presence status of Polycom video endpoints and users of those endpoints can see the presence status of others in OCS.

Partnering with both Tandberg and Polycom, Serafin said, means OCS can interoperate with 73 percent of video solutions globally. He said the pairings are a step in bringing HD video and telepresence solutions to the masses by enabling desktop video through Office Communicator.

Serafin said Microsoft's three partnership announcements and the many more to come are a strong sign software is becoming the dominant choice to run VoIP and UC systems.

"Companies are really embracing a very different way of doing VoIP," he said, adding that the transformation from a networked PBX model to a software model is going to continue. "It's shifting away from the old model Old players in the communications space will find it difficult to adjust."

Much like Pall chided Cisco's TelePresence systems for being expensive and limited to an elite sect of users, Serafin said Microsoft wants to bring affordable video to the masses.

"The concept of telepresence today has been constrained to a very narrow audience," he said. "At the end of the day, who gets to use it? It's a very narrow band."