Get ready for the latest salvo from Microsoft. Microsoft Corp. announced last Monday, May 13, at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2007 in Los Angeles, its plan to build telephony gear compatible with its soon-to-be-released unified communications software. Microsoft Corp. and nine manufacturers unveiled 15 IP telephones that will become available for use in the public beta program of MicrosoftÂ® Office Communications Server 2007 and Microsoft Office Communicator 2007. The manufacturers are ASUSTek Computer Inc., GN, LG-Nortel Co. Ltd., NEC Corp., Plantronics Inc., Polycom Inc., SAMSUNG, Tatung Co. and ViTELiX.
This new generation of devices, combined with other Microsoft programs, will connect the workplace phone to e-mail, provide instant messaging and videoconferencing functions so that users can do things like click on an e-mail message to make a voice-over-IP call to its sender. The software also supports standard desk phone features.
â€œTodayâ€™s office phone is marooned on an island, separate from the rest of the communications tools that information workers rely on to do their jobs,â€ said Jeff Raikes, president of the Microsoft Business Division. â€œBy weaving the business phone together with e-mail, instant messaging, presence, conferencing and the productivity software people use most, we are putting voice communications back into business.â€
Microsoft is also intent on ensuring that all phones work out of the box. According to Eric Swift, senior director of unified communications product management at Microsoft, they will set up a new qualification program for hardware makers. Microsoft will provide the device manufacturers with design specifications, and the products will be tested by Microsoft to assure buyers that the new phones and devices will work easily with Office Communications Server or Office Communicator.
Certified handsets must include wideband audio support, comply with a wide range of VoIP codecs and include specific user-interface elements. Swift also said that most existing VoIP gear today that works with services such as Vonage or Skype should work fairly well too. “We’re looking to ignite partner innovation to bring software economics to what has been proprietary,” he said.
Some of the new phones connect directly to a USB port, so mobile workers can bring the phone with them and use it along with their laptops to access features typically only supported on desk phones, like call forwarding and conferencing. Other new phones include Bluetooth and video capabilities.
Using an open approach and published software interfaces, Microsoft is enabling companies to innovate new workplace phones and devices that make business communications more effective and productive. The products are nearing the end of the Microsoft qualification cycle, which will help ensure the devices and phones deliver the following:
â€¢ â€œJust Worksâ€ experience. The qualified phones and devices work out of the box with Microsoft unified communications software. Itâ€™s as simple as plug-and-play.
â€¢ Greater choice and innovation. With an active partner community building phones and devices, customers are offered more choices when it comes to designs, cost and feature innovations. The 15 phones and devices to be unveiled tomorrow include Internet protocol (IP) phones, Universal Serial Bus (USB) phones, wired and wireless headsets, conferencing phones, LCD monitors and laptops.
â€¢ Improved economics. Because many companies will deliver Microsoft-qualified devices, customers will have more options, including devices tailored to the needs of specific types of workers and that deliver more value for less cost. According to Gartner Inc., â€œhandsets typically cost around 40 percent to 45 percent of the total telephony installation.â€*
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However, most analysts believe that Microsoft still has a long way to go before it can compete with entrenched IP PBX vendors like Avaya and Cisco. A Computerworld article quoted Blair Pleasant, an analyst at Santa Rosa, Calif.-based CommFusion LLC, who said in an e-mail: â€œBy themselves, none of the phones offers as many features as those from Cisco or Avaya,â€ Pleasant said. â€œBut when integrated with [Microsoft's software] these devices offer capabilities like presence, integration with the Microsoft Office Suite, the ability to view missed calls and return a call. It’s not the Microsoft partner devices in and of themselves that are powerful, it’s the fact that they offer seamless or embedded integration with [Microsoft's software], which is very powerful.”
Voipnews also got the opinion of Dell’Oro Group Analyst Alan Weckel: “I think right now OCS is a step in the right direction, but it still doesn’t include all the necessary call control features an Avaya or Cisco or Nortel have in their PBXs. As a standalone product it doesn’t work, so in this round they have to cooperate with all the PBX vendors in order for this product to be successful.” However, Weckel added, â€œIf I ask you in the future what’s in the next version of Office Communications Server, say in 2009 or 2010, you might say theyâ€™ve added enough functionality that you no longer need another PBX for call control. The basic call control resides in the Office Communications Server, and the PBX is a peripheral device to do international call control and a couple of complex things like that.”