Microsoft drops hints about new unified communications offerings

The Office Communications Server (OCS) team at Microsoft has been relatively quiet since it launched OCS 2007 last fall. But it sounds like that silence may be ending soon, with information imminent on the expected OCS Release 2 (R2), a new conferencing service and new business-focused communication services for mobile phones (codenamed "Rouge").

The Office Communications Server (OCS) team at Microsoft has been relatively quiet since it launched OCS 2007 last fall. But it sounds like that silence may be ending soon, with information imminent on the expected OCS Release 2 (R2), a new conferencing service and new business-focused communication services for mobile phones (codenamed "Rouge").

Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Unified Communications Group, hinted on September 22 about what's coming in a canned Q&A on Microsoft's Web site. Pall said:

"(W)e’re exploring ways to infuse unified communications into new business applications, workflow technologies and content management.

"In addition, customers should look for more focus on mobility, spanning mobile messaging and mobile telephony. They should also expect to see more comprehensive conferencing solutions than before and the ability to extend OCS telephony beyond remote and mobile workers. "

OCS is Microsoft’s all-in-one enterprise instant-messaging/VOIP/audio-video conferencing server. Microsoft has been testing privately the next version of its OCS product, known as OCS 2007 R2, for the past several months. The R2 release is expected to include new telephony and routing support; SIP over UDP; and easier Asterisk phone integration, among other new features.

Pall said in the newly published Q&A that Microsoft will be sharing more about OCS R2 "in the coming months." He added that Microsoft will provide "more details" on the release at the VoiceCon Amsterdam conference in mid-October. (It's not clear if Microsoft will actually release the R2 bits this year or in 2009.)

Microsoft has a number of other unified communications products and services in the hopper.

The company is readying a Microsoft-hosted version of Communications Server, similar to the Microsoft-hosted Exchange and SharePoint wares that already are in beta. Microsoft originally planned to field a beta of the so-called Communications Server Online hosted offering by mid-2008, but now it's looking more like fall. The full suite of Microsoft-hosted Online services, known as the Business Productivity Online bundle (one element of which is hosted OCS) also is due to go to beta before the end of this year.

On the cell-phone side of the house, Microsoft is working on a set of Communications Server services for Windows Mobile phones. These services are codenamed "Rouge," according to my tipsters.

I also have gotten a few tips about a new Microsoft-hosted conferencing service in the works that is a "complete rewrite" of the existing Office Live Meeting service. (I'm ecstatic to hear that, since I almost never can get Live Meeting to work. The few times I have had luck, I've crashed before my Live Meeting ended.)

Microsoft says that more than half of the Fortune 500 are now OCS 2007 customers. What do any of you who are existing OCS users -- and others who aren't -- want to see next from Microsoft in the unified communications arena? Are there particular features and services that Microsoft's competitors in this space offer that Microsoft still doesn't?