Microsoft is beefing up Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 with collaboration applications and perks for teleworkers -- moves that partners say are essential to keep up with unified communications (UC) competitors like Cisco Systems.
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Microsoft this week started the press mill churning about release 2 (R2) of its year-old OCS 2007, demonstrating the product at VoiceCon in Amsterdam today. OCS 2007 R2 is currently in private beta and won't be released until February 2009.
"For the first time, inside communications is becoming more important as compared to Voice over IP, which had been the top priority in the past," said Moz Hussain, Microsoft's director of product management for the UC group.
Accordingly, Microsoft has added collaborative applications including dial-in audio conferencing and a shared desktop that enables group document editing. OCS 2007 R2 also includes persistent chat technology (acquired when Microsoft bought Parlano last year) and enables groups within the enterprise to maintain an ongoing dialogue by topic. Hussain said this capability would appeal to financial services companies -- not exactly a constituency now in the market for technology buy-ins, after the market meltdown.
OCS 2007 R2 also includes what Hussain called the "nirvana of unified communications" -- the ability to embed communications in visual applications, so, for instance, doctors can jointly view X-ray images and simultaneously launch a voice, chat or video conference from within the application. That leaves room for partners to develop business applications that embed communications. The tools for building such applications will surface as add-ins to Visual Studio and will be outlined at Microsoft's upcoming Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles.
Partners were depending on Microsoft to come up with stronger collaboration applications.
"We've had some clients who have requested [collaboration] capability and have held off moving to OCS because it wasn't included in the first release," said Bill Vollerthum, president of Microsoft partner Enabling Technologies. "And it was required in order to be competitive with other products."
Cisco launched its Unified Communications System Release 7.0 in September, with a strong collaboration applications focus that also included document sharing and conferencing, among other functions.
Ken Winell, president of ExpertCollab, said Microsoft has to contend with Cisco's unified communications push.
"This is a good update for people who already have OCS in place -- they'll want [OCS 2007 R2], and there are some things in there that might make a more compelling case against Cisco," he noted.
Hussain said he isn't concerned that Microsoft's update lags Cisco's.
"You have to look at what 'unified' means. One of the things that we have focused on is actually having a unified solution," he said, adding that other solutions require buying various conferencing bridges and don't have public switched telephone network (PSTN) dial-in for conferencing.
"It's easy to make acquisitions to add these things on, but to make it unified is more difficult," Hussain added.
Like Cisco, Microsoft is focusing on mobile teleworkers with OCS 2007 R2. The new server basically acts as its own PBX, directing calls and enabling users to make calls from anywhere in the world using a PC or soft phone, as if they were calling from a corporate landline. Users can be sitting in a Starbucks or a hotel in China and log in with an identity and password to begin making calls, Hussain said. The incoming dial ID can display as the office number. New voice capabilities also enable single-number reach, extending landline functions to cell phones.
Microsoft said 5000 Royal Dutch Shell employees use OCS 2007 as their only voice solution, and about half of Microsoft employees already use OCS 2007 R2 without a PBX.
The upgraded voice capabilities are an important selling point, Vollerthum said.
"Taking advantage of what we call an IP soft phone is essential for virtual information workers. More and more people are working remotely because of travel costs. This is a major justification for moving OCS into the remote user space," he said.
The updated OCS also maintains all of the previously integrated messaging, voice and presence capabilities.
Over time, Hussain said, OCS 2007 R2 will be available as a hosted solution.
"We are pushing the engineering team to think hosted right from the get-go," Hussain said.
The new features are available to users running Outlook 2003 and later. The UC benefits of a single mailbox for voice, IM and email require Exchange Server 2007.