IM's missing link could ease the workflow

Peter Judge: Instead of getting on the corporate IM bandwagon, Microsoft should have focused IM techniques on the real sources of office frustration: the phone and email. Luckily, its partner Siemens has done just that

So far there has been scepticism about Microsoft's Greenwich, an effort to leap into corporate instant messaging (IM). However, recent developments make it look more promising.

Greenwich was spoken about last year, at Microsoft's Tech Ed and IT Forum events, but only as a vague prospect. In March, it started to sneak out in the US, but left many distinctly lukewarm. What Microsoft usually does to any technology is to commoditise it, sell it cheaply to its captive market and take out margin until no one else can make a profit at it. How could it do that on something that is already free (to users at any rate).

Of course, the marketing droids at Microsoft patiently explain (as do those at IBM Lotus, Sun, AOL, Yahoo and others vendors hovering around the market), this is corporate IM, to which like any real IM user, we respond the last thing we want is IM in a suit. I appreciate that security is a concern, but I don't want the spontaneity removed by control-freak IT departments.

Microsoft has been making noises about corporate IM since at least 2002. By that date, the populist IM services were all up and running and, like many people, we were using them for office communications. Bigger players were already starting to consider making money from IM by selling bigger, corporate versions, and Microsoft was happy to join in the bandwagon.

But its efforts to clamber on board have looked more and more flustered since then. The name and aims of Greenwich seem to have changed nearly every month. Last year, it was going to be built into Windows Server 2003. This year, it became a separate entity with a beta trickling out in March.

As a separate product it got its own "official" name in April, to replace the Greenwich code-name, Real-Time Communications Server 2003 (or RTC for short). Then it got the word "Office" bolted into its name to convince us it was not an operating system thing, but a real application product.

All this is without any actual delivery date, only a promise that it will emerge around the middle of the year. We know that the price will be fairly low, estimated at around $15 per seat.

The rebranding has been an effort to square the circle, somehow distinguishing the product form the populist free IM service, MSN Messenger, without making it too unfamiliar. Thus, some people are coming away with the idea that this is a just a bit of consumer IM with a few corporate bells and whistles.

This may be a bit unfair. Greenwich is a server for the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), a multimedia protocol which is already included in Windows XP clients. Greenwich could potentially handle voice, video and all sorts of other communications media. So far, what we have seen from Microsoft makes little use of that -- it is a server intended for others to run applications on.

And the first of these applications is arriving (admittedly only in demo form), a collaboration product from Siemens called OpenScape.

Siemens may not be the first company you would expect to be doing sensible software-based collaboration products, but the business of making PBXs has more or less become a software enterprise, says Robert Thompson, the president of the company's HiPath enterprise networks division, so it is actually quite a natural step.

So far, I have only been talked through what OpenScape does. I have not had a hands-on look, or even a proper demo. But the basic concept has taken enough steps beyond conventional IM to induce corporate users to have a look at it (and if it works, maybe pay for it).

The promise of OpenScape is that it will put IM functions into that nexus of frustration in corporate life, Microsoft Exchange, and try and ease some of the frustration out of using email. It uses the RTC to put extra panes into the Outlook window, giving you "presence" information about your colleagues. It tells you if they are answering emails, or travelling, so call them on their mobile. If it turns out that a phone call is best, you don't have to reach for a different machine, OpenScape will dial it for you, using SIP -- your company needs to be running servers to route that out to the switched phone network of course.

If you want to upgrade a voice call to a video one, or collaborate on documents while talking, you will be able to do it with a mouse click, Thompson tells me. And the product will re-route information to appropriate inboxes, dropping audio files into your email, or reading emails over your mobile.

That could be invasive, but you set the presence function, and you are only "at home" to the people you want to be at home too. So if you have one ear in a conference call with marketing people, you can quietly catch up on your other IMs and emails, or else block everyone except your boss.

There are at least two interesting things about this. The first, and most obvious is: will it work? We've all cursed Exchange and Outlook at regular intervals, when it seizes up, or chugs away, implacably trying to give us a preview of a message we don't need to see. Is Outlook up to having this kind of thing put into it, or is it lipstick on a pig?

The second is, how will it be sold? Thompson won't be drawn on the price. My colleagues got the US marketeers to come up with a finger-in-the-air figure of $400 per user seat, which Thompson says is an over-estimate.

This is a stiff price, but Siemens is pitching it against videoconferencing and collaboration software, which can be pretty pricey. The product spec certainly supports videoconferencing, but if it can do it easily, from the Outlook screen, that will be a big step forward.

But even that is not the end of the marketing story, because the selling point will be different from that of videoconferencing.

Videoconferencing and collaboration companies like Genesys sell their products on the savings in business travel. Virtual meetings are cheaper, they say. While they (at least claim to) welcome a high profile entrant which could boost the overall market, they are keen to paint this as a tentative step by Microsoft in a field dominated by specialists.

"Partnership with hardware vendors is the next logical step for Microsoft," said Nigel Dunn, director Northern Europe, Genesys conferencing. "Getting a Web conference on a desktop is not the same as going across the whole enterprise, winning hearts and minds, and getting the technology actually used."

Vendors such as Genesys believe that the traditional videoconferencing market is doing fine, but users still need reassurance before they adopt it. In some contracts Genesys accepts payment based on measured reductions in cost of ownership.

But Siemens' Thompson says that OpenScape is pitching at something different. It's not mainly about replacing the big costly, international meetings, he says, but about giving users back a lot of little bits of wasted time, and making their existing everyday communications work better.

"We're not selling this as a replacement for travel, but as part of the workflow," says Thompson. The real savings will be in getting back hours that you would otherwise spend leaving and retrieving voicemails. If OpenScape really can do something about voicemail tag, then I want it to succeed.

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