Microsoft has been seemingly inching toward unified communications for years, but with Office Communications Server 2007, the company is finally there.
By integrating VOIP (voice over IP), videoconferencing and instant messaging in a single slick and with a familiar user interface-while layering on unified mailbox and collaborative work sessions-Microsoft has put together a compelling communications and collaboration solution, particularly for companies that are already heavy users of Microsoft infrastructure components.
For users at such organizations, the UC tools could not be much more familiar. OCS 2007 bakes real-time presence information into Office (Versions 2007 or 2003) and Office Communicator 2007, allowing users to trigger communication sessions directly from their contact lists, e-mail messages, shared documents and more.
OCS 2007 also allows users to easily navigate among communication modalities, with the ability to view other users' status across the enterprise to gauge the most effective communication mode.
For example, User A may see that User B is marked "Away," so User A sends an e-mail to User B instead of an IM. User B returns and sees that User A is present. User B responds to User A's e-mail with an IM, at which time User A upgrades to a voice or video call with User B. Each conversion takes only a click or two per user. Likewise, callers can upgrade a two-party call to a full-fledged conference with a minimum of clicks, and new parties will get invited automatically via e-mail.
Once in conference, the system has the intelligence to put the focus where it needs to be. For instance, in a videoconference, the video image represents the person actually speaking at the time, and it will shift as the conversation moves from person to person. In addition, conference participants can share documents or applications, and the conference lead can pass application control to other parties as needed.
All this experience is meant to occur directly from the PC, with no need for a desktop phone at all. I tested OCS 2007 using a variety of off-the-shelf Webcams and USB headsets, but Microsoft also provideda few accessories designed specifically for use with OCS: a USB handset called the Catalina and the Polycom Communicator C100 personal speakerphone, both of which provide minimal controls to pick up or drop calls from the respective device itself. Still, the lion's share of control is performed on the desktop.
Exchange Server 2007, which provides unified mailbox capabilities, is required by OCS on the back end. Users can access all their messages from one location now, with the ability to listen to voicemails directly from the computer (no punching codes into the phone) and return a call directly from the message itself. Exchange Server 2007 also can archive Office Communicator chat sessions.
OCS allows users to check in from PCs that do not have Office 2007 installed via the OCS Communicator Web Access server role. Users log into a Web server to gain access to a Web-based Communicator, which provides the ability to search for users throughout the organization. While users cannot make VOIP calls through this interface, they can initiate IM sessions with other users and forward incoming calls from their office extension to a convenient telephone number (such as a cell phone).
OCS 2007 is licensed in both Standard and Enterprise editions. The Enterprise edition is for companies looking for high-availability clustering and costs $2,790, plus $698 for one year of Software Assurance. Standard OCS licenses run $488, plus $122 for one year of Software Assurance. The real costs will likely start adding up when you add in the Office Communications Server CALs (client access licenses) and External Connector Licenses that will need to be purchased for users participating in audio, video or Web conferences. (Note: Prices do not include the costs for Exchange Server, Office or SQL Server.)