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Gates Showcases Universal Communications

OCS 2007 will allow developers to embed telephony into apps.

Microsoft unveiled its widely anticipated Unified Communications (UC) strategy, introducing a key platform for developers to embed voice and presence into their applications.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates took the stage on Oct. 16 at the San Francisco launch event, joined by Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business division. The two took the wraps off components of the strategy, including the Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 (OCS), which bundles VoIP, video, messaging, conferencing and presence; Office Communicator 2007, a UC client; an updated version of Office Live Meeting; a service pack for Exchange Server 2007; and the company's new 360-degree conferencing webcam, dubbed RoundTable, which captures a panoramic view of meeting participants, tracks individual speakers and records meetings.

Gates described its new platform for voice and data convergence as a "transformation to software-based communication," which he believes "is going to be as profound as the shift from typewriters to word processors."

Breaking Silos
While Microsoft focused on the end-user experience and the business case for providing UC services for enterprises, the company did not overlook OCS 2007 as a dev platform. Microsoft's plan to unify technologies that have long lived in silos -- telephony, fax, messaging, paging, e-mail, VoIP, Web conferencing -- is likely to have a profound impact on developers, says Bern Elliot, an analyst at Gartner Inc.

"TCP-IP and the Internet put all communications into a common environment," Elliot tells RDN. "The same environment [is set to occur with converged] applications."

Software-based communications promise to streamline the way people work and simplify the structure of IT departments by unifying disparate technologies and running them through a single server. Microsoft's new UC software underscores the importance of what Gartner calls communications-enabled business processes (CEBP). Thanks to technologies such as "identity," "contextual presence" and "notification," Elliot predicts that applications will soon be driving communications. Applications that provide personal, group and even public notification capabilities embedded in application workflows, for example, are likely to emerge in this software-based communications environment.

Microsoft's UC strategy promises to place these formerly disparate communications capabilities on the developer's palette. Analyst Neil Macehiter believes Microsoft is responding to business demand for improved collaboration technologies, which hasn't been well supported by the current selection of siloed resources. Over time, he says, UC will become an expected capability in business applications, and ISVs and enterprise application developers will need to utilize the communications APIs.

Tool Time
Microsoft is providing developers with a range of OCS tools and resources to deal with communications, including deployment and technical reference information collected in the Office Communications Server 2007 Resource Kit Tools. The Kit contains technical information and best practices for integration with Active Directory services, and for improving a developer's ability to manage the configuration and maintenance of the OCS technologies.

Microsoft earlier this year made the OCS APIs available to third-party developers and telephony vendors that agreed to expose their own interfaces to the OCS (see the June 15 news story, "OCS 2007 Set to Ease Telephony-App Integration"). During the recent launch event, the company pointed to 50 partners that now support the UC platform with new products and services. Vendors exhibited a range of offerings at the event -- everything from phones to PCs to professional services.

Even with Microsoft's vaunted developer-support network kicking into high gear around UC, the OCS is both a rich new resource for developers and a daunting new demand on their abilities, Elliot says. "We're heading for a world in which all communications can be accessed through programmatic interfaces," Elliot says. "That change is going to be dramatic. Until now, communications [technologies] have been very separate, and we don't really know what it means to have communications directly in the processes. Conventions for doing all this will have to be established. And that's just going to take time."

Key to creating an ecosystem is Microsoft's new Unified Communications Open Interoperability program, which lets software developers and telephone systems and gateway providers qualify their hardware or software with the new architecture. Already Nortel Networks, Ericsson and Mitel Networks Corp. are building software apps to run on top of the UC suite and extend their abilities. Aculab, AudioCodes Ltd., Cisco Systems Inc., Dialogic Corp. and Quintum Technologies Inc. announced qualified gateways for OCS 2007. The qualification program is designed to provide customers with validation that the UC software from their vendor works with their telephony systems.

The list of OCS tools from Microsoft is available on the Microsoft TechNet site tools page (http://tinyurl.com/yqhfly) .

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance author and journalist based in Silicon Valley. His latest book is The Everything Guide to Social Media. Follow John on Twitter, read his blog on ADTmag.com, check out his author page on Amazon, or e-mail him at john@watersworks.com.


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