Microsoft released details about the next version of its Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, Release 2, the company's unified communications and collaboration platform that bundles e-mail, instant messaging, Web conferencing and voice over IP.
Microsoft introduced the platform, which is in private beta now but will be available in February 2009, at the VoiceCon tradeshow in Amsterdam Oct. 14. The software competes with rival UCC products such as IBM's Lotus Sametime and Cisco WebEx Connect, as well as a host of independent providers.
OCS R2 includes a PC-based attendant console, letting receptionists manage calls and conferences for other users and route calls, said Yancey Smith, director of unified communications at Microsoft.
The console combines calling with presence software to allow a receptionist to field calls and check the contact list on the computer to see whether the person the caller is looking for is busy, available or away from their desk. The receptionist can also instant message the caller target to notify him or her that a call has come in.
Audio dial-in audio conferencing includes an on-premises bridge that call initiators can access right from their PC. So, instead of paying an independent audio conferencing provider for its services, OCS R2 customers can host their own audio conferencing bridge.
Smith told me the attendant console and on-premises audio conferencing are unique to Microsoft OC2, so don't expect to find them in IBM's or Cisco's UCC portfolios, at least not yet, though IBM and Cisco are hardly resting on their laurels.
IBM Oct. 6 took its Bluehouse SAAS UCC suite into open beta and upgraded its Lotus Sametime Unyte Web conferencing service. Cisco, meanwhile, refreshed its WebEx Connect UCC suite and bid to acquire enterprise instant messaging specialist Jabber a month ago.
Microsoft, IBM and Cisco are clearly driving the UCC market with the flurry of upgrades and buys.
There are billions of dollars to be had in the current UCC market. Microsoft's Smith is confident of the UCC business and Microsoft's place in it. Smith told me:
""We find that the unified communications and collaboration space is growing super fast and enterprise voice is undergoing a huge transformation, and so we see this as a significant additional revenue stream to Microsoft.""
That transformation includes customers migrating from classic PBX systems or even more modern IP PBX systems. Indeed, Microsoft launched OCS R1 last year around this time, and Smith told me several thousand customers have moved their workers off their legacy PBX systems to OCS, streamlining their telephony needs with VOIP.
As you'd expect, OCS interoperates with legacy PBX and IP PBX systems, so customers can move to OC without wholesale rip-and-replace upgrades.
Other features in R2 include SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) trunking, which lets IT get up a direct VOIP connection between an Internet telephony service provider and Office Communicator 2007 without on-premises gateways and a workflow design application to manage incoming calls based on rules.
Smith said Microsoft has also integrated the persistent group chat application, which it acquired when it bought Parlano in 2007. This enables teams to spread out far and wide to collaborate with each other through a list of all available chat rooms and topics.
Though hardly original in UCC, there is also a desktop sharing tool that lets users share their desktop and initiate audio communications.