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Microsoft, Nortel: 'Unified' at Last

NEW YORK -- Microsoft  and Nortel  introduced three new integrated computer and telephony products they say will improve productivity and reduce cost and complexity for end users.

The unified products will be based on the Microsoft Office Communicator 2005 user interface, Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2005 for messaging and presence, and Nortel's Communication Server for telephony features.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Nortel president Mike Zafirovski took the stage to describe the new products and their roadmaps at a customer, press and analyst event held at Rockefeller Center here today.

Ballmer said the two companies share a vision of helping users become more productive by linking together line-of-business applications with desktop productivity tools through a unified communications tool.

Users "shouldn't have to understand and recognize the differences between IM, e-mail and voicemail," but should be able to use those tools seamlessly as their needs change.

In addition to improving productivity, the joint application is also intended to "drive cost and complexity out of the IT infrastructure," Ballmer said, by allowing IT administrators to reduce the number of servers they have to support.

The first product, the Converged Office Solution, is being marketed primarily to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) and is available immediately. It allows customers to use what the companies are calling a smart unified client over a variety of tools, including desktop computers, phones and handheld devices, connected to a Nortel Communication Server. End users will be able to initiate instant messages, e-mail and voice calls from within this same client, and will have detailed presence information for everyone in their contact list.

One feature allows customers to call into their voicemail systems and have attendees for a meeting scheduled in Outlook to be notified that the caller will be late.

Further along the roadmap, the companies said that they will make native session initiation protocol (SIP)  interoperability between Nortel Communication Server 1000 (NCS1000) and Unified Messaging in Exchange Server 2007 by the second quarter of 2007.

Zafirovski said that enterprise-level capabilities will also be rolled out during the second half of 2007.

UC Integrated Branch, a single piece of hardware integrating Nortel and Microsoft technology, will be available in the fourth quarter. The companies will also roll out multimedia conferencing features in the fourth quarter.

The companies see a huge market opportunity before them. As a measure of this, Microsoft said research shows that VoIP  calls will make up 75 percent of all the world's traffic by the end of 2007 and that adoption of VoIP will grow by 1,500 percent by 2010.

But Microsoft is competing in the area of unified communications with IBM , which has demonstrated similar capabilities, as well as Cisco  and others.

But in response to a question from internetnews.com, Ballmer insisted that no other competitor could offer the depth of integration between telephony and desktop applications, such as Outlook and Office on Windows.

Microsoft is credited (some would say criticized) with being present on upwards of 90 percent of desktops worldwide. Ballmer said that the Microsoft-Nortel unified communications product could allow users to read comments on an Excel spreadsheet through the Office Communicator client.

"We're putting intelligence in the client that no one else can match," he said. Another differentiator, he added, is that Microsoft and Nortel are committed to working on an open platform that will benefit from value-added products from third-party vendors.

Ballmer said that the companies have fleshed out a roadmap of product offerings through the end of 2008, but don't expect the majority of enterprises to have transformed their environments until 2009 or 2010. The companies have thus designed their product set to be functional using analog or digital devices currently in use in most organizations, and to allow customers to build from that base.

The only requirements for using unified communications is the Microsoft Office Communicator client and the Nortel Communication Server 1000.

Zafirovski did acknowledge that Nortel has stumbled in recent years, but said the company is proving it has turned itself around with these announcements, as well as the roadmap and schedule to which it is committed. "We have a passion to make this real," he said.

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with the Yankee Group, said he was encouraged by the product roadmap, as well as new customer wins announced by the companies.

"I'm not anointing them king of the unified communications world yet, but it's good to see some early proof points along the way," he told internetnews.com.

He said the alliance allows Microsoft to play to its strength, which is having an understanding of the end-user experience, while Nortel has credibility in the telephony space. The only hitch, he said, is that Nortel is notoriously slower to market and may slow down the product ramp.

"As long as Microsoft is driving this, it's okay," he said.

It may be important to note, then, that when the two CEOs took the stage, Ballmer grabbed the clicker controlling the slide presentation and said, "I never feel quite comfortable without the clicker in my hand."

The two chief executives said they were confident the products would mollify some of the skepticism that greeted news of their alliance, originally announced in July of last year. "This puts some meat on the bones," said Ballmer. And unified communication products in the marketplace.