Microsoft is executing a broad plan to provide customers with software interfaces to traditional voice and VOIP services that will let them make and manage calls from desktops, mobile devices or Web-based services. More pieces of the company's strategy fell into place this week when Microsoft acquired VOIP software and services vendor Teleo to upgrade voice services on MSN. Also, an expansion of its partnership with Nortel gives Microsoft another vendor to help integrate traditional phone service with its real-time communications platform, specifically its Office Communicator 2005 client and corresponding Office Live Communications Server 2005.
"What they want to do ultimately is own the interface," says Irwin Lazar, an analyst with Burton Group. "They want to provide that client on the desktop, the mobile phone, the softphone regardless of the back-end [voice] system."
Microsoft also is positioning its infrastructure software to support voice. For example, it will use Active Directory as the repository for identity and attribute information, including phone numbers, and a future version of Exchange as a unified message store for voice mail.
In addition, a mobile version of Office Communicator, expected in beta in the coming months, will extend the client's VOIP and call-control features to mobile devices.
Lazar says it appears Microsoft is less concerned with the back end where it hopes to leave classic telephony companies such as Cisco, Nortel, Siemens and others to provide infrastructure, while edging those vendors out of the client-side interface arena.
The biggest challenge Microsoft faces is execution of its plan, Lazar says. And competitors agree.
"Certainly Microsoft is going to be a big force in collaboration applications and we are working with them in that area," says Charles Giancarlo, Cisco's chief development officer. "But in terms of real-time voice and video-based collaboration, where you have to deal with all the issues associated with a pleasant and easy experience with voice and with video, we think that takes a systems company, not just a software company, to do it right."
Microsoft's traditional competitors also aren't standing still. IBM/Lotus teamed earlier this month with Avaya to integrate voice software and "click-to-call" features with e-mail, Web conferencing and instant messaging software on the Notes/Domino and Sametime platforms. The partnership will provide similar features Microsoft is gaining from Nortel and earlier partnerships this year with Siemens, Alcatel and Mitel.
"With regards to voice, we are not talking just about VOIP, we are talking about call control and all the things you can do with a desktop phone today," says Peter Pawlak, an analyst with independent research firm Directions on Microsoft. "What can you do with an interface that is basically a digital keypad? With a software interface, you can do a ton of things:You can display the caller ID and see if it pops up anyone in your contact list. You can take the call to voice mail with a right click. You can forward it to someone else, you can take the call by clicking on the answer button. You can say I want to conference in someone and you can look them up in your Outlook address book and hit conference and it sends a signal to the switch to ring somebody's extension. Basically your PC becomes your interface to the PBX functions."
Microsoft's expansion this week of its relationship with Nortel speaks to those capabilities. Nortel's Communication Server 1000, which is based on Session Initiation Protocol, will integrate with Live Communications Server 2005 and Communicator 2005. Communicator will let users initiate calls through the corporate phone system; provide call control features such as forwarding, transferring, conferencing; and answer calls placed to desktop phones using Communicator.
But Microsoft is coy about whether it plans to become a telephony player.
"This [Nortel partnership] isn't turning Live Communications Server and Communicator into a PBX," says Paul Duffy, senior product manager in the real-time collaboration group at Microsoft. "It is providing integration with telephony assets [that] customers already have." Duffy would only say Microsoft is listening to customers when asked if Microsoft would become the PC interface to voice.
But the idea is intriguing to some users.
Nortel customer Joanne Kossuth, CIO at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass., says she is interested in enabling users to initiate phone calls from desktop Communicator clients; receive pop-ups that indicate users have phone calls; and enable users to receive calls, forward them or transfer them. "If you make it a button in an application, people are going to use it. If you make it a whole new application where people have to get trained they're going to be less likely to use it," she says.
She says Communicator might help support seniors working on engineering projects with businesses that they must stay in touch with at least once a week. "Being able to use the Communicator and seeing pop-ups for specific calls flags their attention if, say, it's their adviser calling from the company," Kossuth says.
Microsoft, however, is not ignoring the white-hot VOIP market, where the use of IP PBXs is poised to soar. Market watcher In-Stat predicts sales of these devices will represent 51 percent of all PBX sales this year and grow to 91 percent worldwide by 2009.
The VOIP play
Microsoft this week bought Teleo, a VOIP software and services provider whose technology, specifically click-to-call that lets users click on a phone number in any Web page to dial, will be integrated with MSN Messenger and other products and services the company did not specifically name. Teleo was planning to introduce a service that would let users place calls from their PCs using Microsoft Outlook and Internet Explorer.
Microsoft already has VOIP features in its MSN Messenger that allow PC-to-PC calls; the Teleo technology will add PC-to-cell and wireline phones.
In the short term, the acquisition helps Microsoft compete with Skype, a PC-based VOIP client, and with Google Talk. But in the long term, Teleo technology could bleed into Office-based collaboration products and Microsoft's Xbox gaming platform, according to a research note issued this week by Goldman Sachs.
Teleo supports call forwarding, conferencing and voice mail features that could easily find their way into corporate products.
A Microsoft spokeswoman says use of Teleo technology beyond MSN has yet to be determined.
In addition, Xbox Live, with 2 million subscribers, is one of the largest VOIP services in existence and provides Microsoft with a healthy test environment for future products. Later this year when it ships Xbox 360,the next version of the platform, it will include voice chat as a built-in feature and could add millions more VOIP users.
With Microsoft's all encompassing efforts, however, come the usual fears about platform lock-in.
"You make an instant messaging decision and all of a sudden you have made a decision that will really influence what you will do with IP telephony and VOIP," says Mike Gotta, an analyst with Burton Group. "By going to Communicator [which supports IM] and Live Communications Server, that is a product leap. What you really need first is an architecture leap." -- Network World (US)
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