Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's Business Division, laid out the roadmap for Microsoft's communications products, most of which won't show up until at least a year from now. It's one way to give customers hope for the future, and keep them in the fold, that Microsoft can help them overcome communications chaos. Raikes said that communications today is inconvenient and not integrated with the business processes used every day. He cited Microsoft research that found an individual in a company uses an average of 6.4 different communications devices and and average of 4.8 applications.
Raikes was clear that his slice of the unified communications strategy is aimed at businesses. His initial remarks were partly a Microsoft positioning statement, reiterating to the audience that Microsoft is indeed a "software focused company," with phrases like:
"The power of a software-based approach is that it works where you work."
"The new world of work...with people at the center...the tremendous role of software."
"Using the power of software to drive the next wave of innovation of communications at work." "The focus is our software expertise"
The presentation also inclued a goofy demo of the RoundTable camera and video conferencing product, with an actor from the TV show, "The Office."
Anoop Gupta, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Unified Communications group, walked through several scenarios of the forthcoming products, especially Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 and Office Communications Server 2007, showing a presence-based, enterprise VoIP softphone and multiparty videoconferncing.
In summing up, Gupta hit all the key phrases that CIOs like to hear--Microsoft unified communications is personal and intuitive; centered around people and availability; allows users to be in control of communications on any device; is deeply integrated with business processes; leverages infrastructure customers already have; makes it simple to manage communications services; lower the costs; and is standard-based for interoperability.
The demos were well conceived, especially if you are a Windows shop, but most of the functionality that improves the user experience won't be available until next year. Raikes said organizations can lay the foundation today for unified communications with a single directory (Active Directory) and use Exchange and Live Communications Server today.
In the meantime, many users in business organizations have been figuring out on their own how to apply various VoIP services, soft phones, IM clients, video conferencing, email other communications tools into their work as well as personal lives. Just as intant message come in through the back door, other communications applications, such as Skype, are finding homes on corporate desktops. The lightweight, Web-centric, browser-based approach versus Microsoft's more heavyweight Windows-centric client will continue to play out within Microsoft and with Google, Yahoo and others.
When asked about seamlessly linking personal and business communications, Raikes gave the uninspired answer that part of the Microsoft vision is bridging what he called the digital workstyle and digital lifestyle. Gupta pointed to Windows Live Messenger as an example of capabilities his team is working on that are being enabled for the consumer experience. He also cited federating instant messenging services (MSN, Yahoo, AOL) and making sure the enterprise communications services are hostable for smaller business that don't have the IT expertise in house.
I caught up with Gupta after the presentations and asked him about consumer-oriented communications applications and services innundating enterprises. "Consumer things are not going to work for security reasons," he said. He explained that at Microsoft all 60,000 employees are his buddies. In working with many different groups at Microsoft, he can see their presence. True enough, but most users don't have 60,000 or even 5,000 buddies and have managed to figure out how to communicate via a variety of IM and VoIP services with the people that count for them. It's not seamless, but it works today and is low cost. That's Microsoft's competition. That said, every Exchange installation is a potential candidate for migrating to Microsoft's unified communications platform.