Microsoft Pumps Up Collaboration Suite
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Microsoft is putting the final touches on its unified communications (UC) tool, Office Communications Server 2007 Release 2, which will be available early next year and feature enhanced conferencing, wireless device and developer-friendly capabilities.
Details about the new version comes a year after Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) introduced OCS, in advance of the product's official launch in February 2009. New features will include enhanced audio conferencing technology and wider mobile device support. The new version also provides developers with more APIs and Visual Studio integration for building and embedding communications in other business applications.
The news comes as adoption for UC tools -- which typically bring together IP-based voice, videoconferencing, e-mail and instant messaging functions -- remains slow. While seen a cost-saving and productivity-boosting suite, many enterprises find integration and interoperability of UC packages challenging.
Still, industry watchers believe uptake will increase as vendors make tools easier to set up and manage. Researcher IDC has reported the market could total $17 billion by 2011 -- a market that Microsoft, like many other major enterprise software vendors, has its eye on.
"All businesses, across all company sizes, can benefit," Nora Freedman, an analyst at IDC, told InternetNews.com. "However, communications pain points are different. Due to all of the moving parts and features of UC, there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution."
But vendors seem willing to try, a main reason why UC players are building out their tools to address a wider variety of telephony environments, Freedman said.
Microsoft's new version increases UC mobility features as it extends the tool's Office Communicator Mobile module to work with mobile platforms like the Nokia S40 and Motorola's RAZR, following earlier support for Research in Motion's BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices. As a result, smartphone users on a larger number of different devices can communicate with coworkers using voice, presence and IM through a single client.
For Microsoft in particular, Freedman said the company's updates illustrate how valuable voice is in a UC solution and shores up that aspect with enhancements like a new, on-premises audio conference bridge for dial-in audioconferencing. It also makes using Voice-over-IP (VoIP) simpler to set up, adding support for a connection with a VoIP provider without an on-premises gateway.
"The improvements highlight the general evolution of any Microsoft product, in that the first version is never perfect," Freedman said. "Essentially, I think that Microsoft initially underestimated the use of voice as the primary mode of business communications in their first version and now they're attempting to address that in this new version."
Cost-savings is one key way in which the software giant is pushing the suite. According to Microsoft, over half of the Fortune 500 companies have licensed OCS 2007 and those clients estimate savings of 25 percent to 30 percent in replacing legacy communication systems.
"We have seen incredible adoption of the software-powered approach in part because of our ability to interoperate with existing communications infrastructures," Yancey Smith, director of unified communications at Microsoft, told InternetNews.com in an e-mail. "Simplifying deployment and management and a great focus on the end user are areas Microsoft excels in, and we plan to bring the same reduced [total cost of ownership] and improved experience to UC as we did in other business software markets."
Other key additions in the release are new desktop sharing capabilities and persistent group chat, which provides a continual record of discussions, archived in an XML-compliant format, with search capability and alerts for new posts or topics.
Update adds quote from Microsoft.