Microsoft's announcements today for its real-time communications products demonstrated the company's real strength: persistence. For the last several years, Microsoft has been working on a suite of enterprise-class collaboration tools that can be integrated into Office. Now it looks like they have something to sell.
Bill Gates hosted the event, and boiled down what he called a big milestone to one major idea: "The big thing is simplification, taking all the interfaces you have to learn and bringing it all together." Making communications and collaboration seamless has long been an Achilles' heel for Microsoft. The term "seamless" is way overused, but making software that deftly handles complex human interactions in cyberspace consistently and coherently across applications--even just Microsoft's--is the only way to get people to use (and buy) the features.>
Microsoft Live Communications Server 2005 has been upgraded with new features, such as connectivity to AOL, Yahoo and MSN instant messengers (IM); federated IM with external partners and customers; and integration with SharePoint and improved management and administrative tool support. Microsoft can also extract a nice annual fee in addition to server licensing revenue. A client access license (CAL) is required, starting at $31 per user or device accessing the server. The public IM connection is about $13 to $16 per user per year.
The highlight of the announcement was the client piece, Microsoft Office Communicator 2005, which ties together communications capabilities, such as IM, presence awareness, notifications, voice, video and VoIP with productivity applications. Communicator is integrated with Outlook and Exchange Server, and via a PBX or PSTN gateway allows users to control their office phone and, based on preferences, to route calls to their cell phones or other destinations.
Communicator is due by the end of June, but pricing is not yet available. Corporate VP for the real-time collaboration group at Microsoft Anook Gupta said Communicator is the company's "preferred" client, but developers can build their own clients within the walled garden on top of Live Communications Server. Enabling applications with the presence capability is only a few lines of scripting code, Gupta said.
Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2005 is a major update for the Web conferencing software. New features include initiating a conference from within other Office applications, VoIP integration, audio conference call controls, a document viewer, and improved support for PowerPoint.
Gates and Gupta showed off the products, which included a lame Live Meeting 2005 video conference with Survivor and Apprentice creator Mark Burnett and a couple of Apprentice winners. After the demo, Gates quipped, "We got a chance to learn about some great TV shows--great stuff." Sure, Bill, we believe you.
Gates also said that Microsoft saved over $40 million in travel costs using the Web conferencing software. Microsoft didn't exactly need Live Meeting to save a sizable amount on travel expenditures. Several other companies have Web conference services that are more popular and feature-rich than