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Microsoft offers VARs an alternative to UC

Microsoft will rely on partners to deliver its unified communications solution

Unified communications through software or hardware manufacturers?That’s the choice Microsoft offers to network managers during the launch event for Office Communications Server 2007.

In Toronto, the firm pulled in partners including Nortel, Bell Business Solutions and MTS Allstream, to help boost OCS’s image to reporters and industry analysts. But conspicuously absent was Cisco Systems, another partner who most observers agree will be Microsoft’s biggest competitor for enterprise customers.

“We’re on the verge of the next big evolution of business communications,” said Jordan Chrysafidis, Microsoft Canada’s VP of business and marketing.

“Typically the [office communications] solutions have been largely hardware-based,” he said. But enterprise hardware-based solutions are “very, very high cost,” he insisted. OCS’s software-based attempt to merge voice, messaging and conferencing through the ubiquitous Office productivity suite offers many benefits, he said.

Work without apps
Among them is giving users the choice of the right communications tool – voice, e-mail, instant messaging, conferencing – to get work done without moving through several applications, he said.

Today’s desktop phones only have limited integration with the desktop, Chrysafidis argued. OCS integrates voice onto the desktop through Office Communicator 2007 (which includes a softphone and is available in enterprise editions of Office 2007), as well as phones made by manufacturers like Nortel.

Ruchi Prasad, general manager of Nortel’s partnership with Microsoft, declared that “we are well ahead of our competitors [making OCS-based solutions] and in a very unique position.”

The company announced Nortel Converged Office, which integrates its IP-PBX with OSC 2007; Nortel Multimedia Conferencing 5.0, a customer premise audio-visual solution; UC Integrated Branch, which integrates WAN routing, Ethernet switching and VoIP for extending unified communications to branches; and the LG-Nortel IP Phone 8500 series desksets that are optimized for OCS.

Rob Helm, director of research at Directions on Microsoft, said the software giant has a lot riding on OSC. By adding voice and other capabilities, it takes on entirely new markets.

“It’s Microsoft’s entry into a market for unified communications of tens of billions of dollars,” he said.

Still, he said, most enterprise customers are more comfortable with hardware vendors – such as Cisco and Avaya – when it comes to communications. “Microsoft has a pretty tough road to follow to catch up to those vendors who have been in the field for a while.”

Microsoft’s solution leverages a host of the company’s applications – Exchange for managing e-mail and IM, Outlook and on the desktop, which gives the company a foot in the door, said Helm.

Eric Fletcher, Allstream’s senior vice-president of marketing for enterprise solutions, acknowledged that software often comes with many menus of features most users have trouble wading through. “But you’ll find the ones that work with you and they’ll be the ones you’ll use,” he said.

“The concept of consolidating the directories so you’ve got a seamless directory, eventually getting it to work in your mobile platform, will change the way we communicate,” said Fletcher. “I see it as a journey.”

Allstream was the integrator of an OSC-based beta project at the Ontario Association of Community Care Access Centres, a group that provides in-home health care services for 650,000 people across the province. “We saw this as a good way for us to be able to move from previous versions and meet some emerging business needs with our centres, which are distributed all over the province,” said Ken Sutcliffe, the association’s IT director.