Today, Microsoft is releasing the beta version of its latest unified communications suite. The pair of solutions is known as Office Communicator 2007 (the client side) and Office Communicator Server 2007 (the server side). In favor of Office Communicator Server (OCS), Microsoft is dropping the old product name Live Communications Server (2005) or LCS. To fill you in on the all the details, we've got a video interview and Office Communicator demo session with Microsoft Unified Communications group product manager Paul Duffy, a podcast-only audio version of that interview (that, with the Flash player above, can be streamed, downloaded, or it will show up in your audio player automatically if you're subscribed to my podcast feed), and, in addition to this blog post, an image gallery with 15 screen shots showing Office Communicator in action. The video and podcast start off with a whiteboard discussion that lays out the principal architecture of Microsoft's unified communications approach, diagramming how everything fits together.
|See our video of Office Communicator 2007 in action: To get a better idea of how Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 works, David interviewed Microsoft 's Group Product Manager Paul Duffy who talked about Microsoft's philosophy behind the software and then gave a demo. To see the demo, just check out the video.||Image Gallery: Want images? Have we got images. In addition to the video, we've prepared a gallery of images that shows some of the various user interface elements of Microsoft Office Communicator 2007|
If there will be an amazingly compelling reason to go all-Microsoft for your office suite (as in Microsoft Office), your document sharing infrastructure (as in Sharepoint), your e-mail and scheduling system (as in Microsoft's Exchange and Outlook), your data/voice conferencing (as in Microsoft's NetMeeting), and your instant messaging, then Office Communicator is it. So deeply and contextually can Office Communicator's DNA be integrated into the rest of Microsoft's solutions that there is probably no other glue in all of Microsoft's portfolio that so elegantly demonstrates the company's strategic vision for making knowledge workers more productive at what they do. If you look back across much of what I've written about Microsoft, it's not often that I heap praise on any of the company's solutions. Compared to alternatives in the market, going the multi-app route with Microsoft is usually a proprietary route that involves additional expense (eg: the cost of Microsoft Office vs. OpenOffice.org or Corel's Wordperfect Office).
I spend a lot of my editorial looking at disruptive technologies that fly in the face of expensive properietary approaches. But, given the way its features turn up across the rest of Microsoft's portfolio of software, Office Communicator proves that sometimes, proprietary has its advantages. If standards bodies started working on all the interfaces that would be needed for a mix and match of third party products to produce the same final result as a complete suite from Microsoft, it probably would be another decade until we saw the fruits fo that effort. So, what's changed in the new suite of unified communications solutions from Microsoft besides its name? As far as I can tell, there are three and a half big changes.
The first of these is OCS' ability to incorporate voice and video communications. Whereas LCS primarily focused on messaging (instant, e-mail), now voice is a part of the formula. In fact, when the time comes to communicate with someone through the Office Communicator client, the end-user can attempt to make contact through any number of ways including voice, video, e-mail, and instant messaging. The second of these is Microsoft's centralization of what is best referred to these days as Web conferencing. Whereas before (in Microsoft's scheme of things), Web conferencing (which can include screen/application sharing, voice, video, and other data) was primarily done through the company's NetMeeting solution (and "net" meetings were easily scheduled via Microsoft's Outlook and Exchange), now, because of the way Office Communicator now supports all communications types, not only can pre-arranged Web conferences be pulled together through Office Communicator, but so too can ad-hoc conferences (including plain old conference calls). Imagine for example how today, when instant messaging with two or three people in separate windows, you can invite all of them to join a group chat. With Office Communicator, that can be a voice conference call, a video conference call, a group chat, or a WebEx style (NetMeeting in Microsoft's parlance) Web conference (see image below for the different ways an e-mail sender can be replied to). Continued below.....
The "half" in the aforementioned "three and a half big changes" is how OCS can integrate with the public telephone network by virtue of its ability to interface with a company's private branch exchange (PBX). The big benefit of this is that any Voice over IP-based (VoIP) communication taking place through the Office Communicator client can be bridged to a regular landline or cell phone. In other words if I was on Office Communicator, I could launch what is basically a VoIP-based communication, but I can dial-out to anyone's regular telephone. This works for dialing someone inside my company (eg: someone to whom Office Communicator isn't available) as well as outside the company. This sort of VoIP to PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) call obviously comes in addition to the standard VoIP to VoIP calls that Office Communicator can naturally make to other Office Communicator users.
One key benefit however is that now, with what Microsoft refers to as an OCS Edge Server, users on VoIP and/or Web conference-capable devices (eg: notebooks and Windows Mobile-based smartphones) who are outside the corporate firewall can be included in communications as well. Closing the book on flexibility, OCS' PBX integration even makes it possible for someone on the public telephone network to dial into (PSTN-to-VoIP style) an Office Communicator-based VoIP user (the rough equivalent of Skype-In to those of you familiar with Skype).
The net result of this PSTN flexibility as well as Office Communicator's ability to support multiple communication types means that conferences (pre-arranged or ad-hoc) that might normally have excluded one or more people on the basis of their location (outside the firewall) or the technology at their disposal (a phone instead of software) no longer have to exclude anyone. For example, if you received an e-mail today and realized you had to pull six people together immediately for a voice-enabled Web conference to look at some slides, if one of those people was on a laptop at Starbucks and another was on a cell phone at an airport, both could be pulled into the call in a heartbeat. The person on the cell phone might not be able to see the slides, but at least they could be dialed-in.
Another big advantage of the the voice integration is ability for users to transfer their own connection from one device to another. For example, if you were on a standard VoIP call or conference through Office Communicator and you need to transfer the call to another device (see image of this in progress), for example your cell phone, it is easily done.
The third big change (of the "three and a half big changes") is the contextual integration of Office Communicator into virtually every major product in Microsoft's application portfolio where collaboration plays a role. The key ingredient of this integration is the contextual inclusion of "presence" at any point some other person's identity shows up. For example, in the recipient or sender fields of an e-mail. Or, in the Office Communicator client itself. Or, where the author's name appears on a document being shared through Microsoft's Sharepoint. Once you, as a user of Office Communicator set your presence (something your calendar in Exchange can do automatically for you based on your schedule), then, no matter where your name appears, not only can others see (using a small icon) whether you're available or not, but they can also get more details. You can, for example, apply more text to your presence to indicate exactly what you're doing and when you'll be done and when others hover over your name in just about any collaborative application of Microsoft's, they'll see that message.
It's also from this contextual appearance of your presence in all of Microsoft's applications that others can not only choose to contact you, but they can choose to contact you based on exactly how you're able to be contacted at that point in time. For example, maybe you can only be reached on your cell phone. Even better... if they try to reach you at your office, you can set Office Communicator to forward all inbound VoIP calls to your cell phone (thanks to OCS's PBX ability to integrate with the corporate PBX).
Another example of context sensitivity (show in the screen gallery) is how you can reply to someone's e-mail (or a Sharepoint document) with a VoIP call, and, when that incoming call shows up on someone else's desktop, it will reflect the subject of the e-mail (nice touch!).
As said earlier, a lot of this integration is the realization of Microsoft's vision for how to use its software assets to make knowledge workers in a collaborative environment more productive. Under the hood, there's clearly some connectivity that would take others a long time to reproduce in a standards-based environment which is why I refer to the solution as proprietary. That's not to say that others can't figure out how to tie into Microsoft's unified communications infrastructure with non-Microsoft solutions. A lot of that capability to tie in is available through APIs that Microsoft makes available to developers. Although standards support could always be better (for example, solutions could default to use open standards where ever possible), other standards like the session initiation protocol (SIP) are supported in various spots throughout Microsoft's portfolio of software, thereby offering the ability to integrate with non-Microsoft solutions in some places. In addition, as has been the case with NetMeeting, there are ways for users on non-Microsoft technology to tie into Web conferences with nothing more than a Web browser.
I haven't had an opportunity to sit down and work extensively with the product. So, it's hard to really vet the pros and the cons at this point in the beta. That said, the product really looked like the culmination of a long term vision and that vision makes very good sense once you've see the implementation. As a side note, the images in the image gallery are mostly cropped versions of images that were furnished to us by Microsoft at my request. Since I don't have the software here and the beta is just now being released, asking Microsoft for a wide range of images that show what the product can do was the best alternative. Microsoft furnished no captions. All of the captions on those images were written by me on the basis of what I saw in the demonstration.
Here's the video: