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Microsoft eyes unified comms market in Malaysia

Software giant launches unified communications products in Malaysia, hoping to get a head-start on its competitors with partners Nortel and HP.

KUALA LUMPUR--The battle for the nascent unified communications market in Malaysia looks set to heat up with key players Microsoft, Nortel and Hewlett-Packard (HP) cementing their partnership in the local market.

Microsoft launched its unified communications products here today and unveiled its vision, technology road map and partnership plans to about 450 Malaysian business leaders and IT decision makers.

Microsoft's Malaysian unit plans to leverage on the new business alliances with Nortel and HP to get a head-start in the unified communications market.

Nortel has a technology roadmap and plans to build software applications to enhance Microsoft's Office Communications Server as part of its joint partnership with Redmond, while HP has announced a new services portfolio integrating voice, fax, e-mail, voice-mail, video/data/audio conferencing, collaboration, wireless and mobile technologies.

Speaking at the launch, Nortel Asia's Kirsten Gilbertson, who is leader of the Innovative Communications Alliance (ICA) between Nortel and Microsoft, said: "The alliance is enabling enterprises across the region to integrate communications and business processes simply and effectively, while providing investment protection on their existing infrastructure."

Unified communications is a term for the integration of disparate communications systems and media, desktop computers, applications and mobility. This includes the integration of voice, e-mail, instant messaging, desktop and business applications, Internet Protocol (IP)-PBX, voice over IP (VoIP), presence, voice-mail, fax, audio, video and web conferencing, and unified messaging into a single environment.

At the launch, Microsoft trumpeted a major win for its unified communications business in Malaysia. Western Digital, one of world's leading hard disk manufacturers, has adopted the Microsoft platform at its Malaysian facility. The storage manufacturer is also considering extending the software to its facilities in the United States and Thailand.

Tee Lay Kern, a senior principal engineer at Western Digital, said: "The partnership between Microsoft and Western Digital reflects (our) belief in Microsoft's technologies in meeting the demands of the ever-changing enterprise communications landscape, streamlining communications and making it easier to collaborate and access information to make informed and timely decisions."

Gartner, in its latest Magic Quadrant for Unified Communications, 2007  research report, identified Microsoft and Nortel, as well as Alcatel-Lucent, as leaders in the market. Leaders are those vendors that sell "comprehensive and integrated" unified communications, said the report which also listed Cisco, IBM and Avaya as the challengers to the triumvirate in this market space. Vendors that have not moved into a leadership position are primarily those whose products are had "not yet mature", or feature most but not all unified communications functions.

Gartner said unified communications will only enter an early mainstream adoption phase globally in 2008, and estimates that by 2010, 40 percent of companies will complete the convergence of their entire voice and data networks onto a single network, while 80 percent of companies will integrate voice or messaging communications into some business applications or processes.

According to IDC, the current market size for worldwide unified communications is approximately US$4.8 billion, and by 2011, this number is expected to increase to US$14.5 billion.

Gartner's report attributed the slow adoption to multiple technical and organizational issues including new technologies not being fully understood, products lacking functionality, deployment complexity, and enterprises wanting to preserve their large investments in existing communication infrastructures. Organizations are also unconvinced of the "soft" returns on investment, such as productivity improvements.

Despite Microsoft's "comprehensive" portfolio, the report issued a cautionary note. "The telephony functionality in OCS and in Exchange Server 2007 Unified Messaging is new to the market...telephony and other live communication functionalities, such as video, frequently take several years to mature to the desired levels of reliability, quality of voice service and scalability," said Gartner.

The report also said "overly optimistic" marketing materials from Microsoft sometimes underestimate the challenges and difficulties involved in making live communication functions, such as video and VoIP, reliable and of high quality.

Lee Min Keong is a freelance IT journalist based in Malaysia.