In the last quarter of 2007, Microsoft burst onto the scene with a pair of products launching Microsoft into the voice over IP and unified communications markets. These products, although aimed at opposite ends of the marketplace, share the common theme of leveraging software to foster improved communications for their clients.
Released in October, Office Communications Server 2007 builds upon Microsoft's Exchange Server and Office environments to offer users a PC-oriented solution that brings together voice, video- and text-based communications with real-time presence and collaboration capabilities.
Microsoft followed that with the November release of Response Point, a low-maintenance, Windows XP Embedded-based appliance providing basic VOIP features and functions for companies looking for an affordable, more traditional telephony solution .
"On the Office Communications Server side, we really focused on the information worker as the primary audience," said Eric Swift, senior director of product management for Microsoft's Unified Communications Group. "The ability to find who you want to communicate with, then to reach out and connect with them using the form of communication that is most effective-that was first and foremost in our design points. Regardless of where people are located and what device they are on, you are going to initiate conversation depending on what you need to talk about and not be dependent on a specific device or technology type."
Swift indicated that OCS customers to date generally have more than 500 seats, usually extending into the thousands. The initial version of OCS, he said, is optimized for these larger organizations that are looking to collaborate across multiple locations, geographies and networks.
With Response Point, on the other hand, the target audience is dramatically different, with the focus on small businesses in the under-50-users set.
"[Our focus] was the small-business owner that needed essentially their first phone, and they it needed to be very simple-basically, to provide phone service," Swift said. "We needed to take the basic phone call features and add on to that a couple of the innovative features so that it is easier to administer from a setup standpoint and easier for a user to do basic call functions."
With these differing points of emphasis, the two products are worlds apart in terms of features, architectures, platforms and licensing complexity. Even in the areas where there could be opportunity to standardize the user experience across platforms, Microsoft has chosen not to go that route at this time.
During my tests of the two products I found that some technology is shared between the products, but in dramatically different ways. For example, speech recognition is offered in both products but is used for very different purposes.
Microsoft officials say they plan to watch both product lines to see what works for users and what does not-and where the lines should cross. "Based on how people use [the products] and how the demand goes for features, we will certainly cross-pollinate-not only on the technical underpinnings but on the actual user experience itself," Swift said.