Microsoft announced Communications Server "14," the next version of the company's unified communications software, at the VoiceCon Orlando conference on March 24. The platform, which will provide holistic enterprise telephony and allow customers to embed communications within applications, will be available in the second half of 2010.
On top of those features, Communications Server 14 will introduce a Communicator client that interoperates with Microsoft Office, Microsoft SharePoint Server and Microsoft Exchange. It will allow enterprise workers to use instant messaging and other on-premises and cloud-based software to communicate and collaborate on projects.
Communications Server 14 will also offer a "skill search feature" that will allow workers to be located based on their expertise, notify the searcher when those workers are available and pinpoint their locations.
Given Microsoft's position as a software creator, it's perhaps inevitable that the company would use the announcement to emphasize what it sees as software's rising place in enterprise communications. In a February 2009 report, analyst company Forrester estimated that the overall UC market could be worth about $14.5 billion by 2015.
"Communications centered solely around the desk phone and built on hardware-based systems are quickly becoming a relic of the past," Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, wrote in a March 24 post on the official Microsoft blog. "Even in this nomadic world a mobile phone is not sufficient-neither is it rich enough for collaborative work, nor are companies willing to reimburse upwards of $600 a year per employee for their mobile bill."
In the near future, Pall predicted, business communication and collaboration will increasingly become a matter of unified platforms based on software, integrating products such as IP phones, survivable branch appliances and accounting software.
"Three years from now, new applications written by corporate developers, system integrators and software vendors will be communications-enabled by default," Pall wrote. "We predict that three out of every four new business applications will include embedded communications. I'm confident these predictions describe the future of unified communications."
Pall also predicted that UC will become "the norm in business communications" within the next three years, with more than half of VOIP (voice over IP) calls at work coming to include "more than just voice."
That could be good news for Microsoft and for other companies such as IBM that are making investments in UC. IBM plans to capitalize on the growth potential of UC with platforms such as Lotus Sametime, which integrates voice, video and data for services such as enterprise IM, online meeting capabilities and telephony.