Microsoft Unfolds Collaboration Roadmap

SAN FRANCISCO — The instant messaging client, a mainstay of teen chats, has a new corporate persona as command central for business communications. The impending release of Microsoft Communicator turns the “lowly” IM into a collaboration tool.

Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates unveiled Microsoft Office Communicator, along with enhancements to Microsoft Office Live Communication Server 2005 and Live Meeting — and not to mention its first television product placement.

At a meeting for press, partners and customers on Tuesday, Gates outlined the Microsoft vision of “people having the information they care about when they want it.”

The offerings could save businesses money by reducing the need for face-to-face meetings, as well as freeing employees from phone tag and endless e-mail loops. At the same time, collaboration tools could provide a reason for corporate customers to upgrade to Office 2003.

Microsoft Office Communicator, formerly code-named Istanbul, is meant to be the preferred client for Microsoft Office applications. It combines the unified messaging concept — wherein users can reliably get messages as they switch devices and protocols — with access to Microsoft Office applications. The user’s “presence” can include personal information from Microsoft Office contacts and Active Directory.

“We take identity and presence and put it in the center,” Gates said. “All the other applications connect to that.”

The familiar IM client interface becomes the entry point for inviting work “buddies” to communicate via multiple devices and protocols, including telephony and Web or video conferencing. Communicator also launches Office applications, so that users can quickly access and share information through Live Communication Server. A simple interface with clickable icons lets users launch video conferencing or voice calls.

“Office integration could drive collaboration deeper into the enterprise,” Melanie Turek, an analyst with Nemertes Research, wrote in a research note. “With the new capabilities, IT managers can effectively design a desktop that will let users call, conference and message each other seamlessly, all while monitoring each other’s online and telephone presence.”

The pumped-up IM client anticipates the rush to IP-based telephony, as well as the dominance of mobile phones. Users can initiate calls to PBX, mobile or Voice over IP phones. Microsoft intends to integrate with PBX vendors via the SIP and SIMPLE protocols.

“Where we thought of the PC and the mobile phone and the desk phone, whether PBX or VOIP, as isolated devices, now we’ll think of them as a triumvirate that works together,” Gates said. Users will be able to set policies for different communications modes and switch communication between devices.

According to Turek, the announcements push Microsoft’s offerings closer to what telephony vendors, such as Avaya , Nortel and Siemens , already provide, while Microsoft is the only vendor offering any kind of interoperability for instant messaging or presence.

Communicator also interoperates with public instant messaging clients from AOL, Yahoo and MSN. It takes advantage of Microsoft SharePoint functionality, as well.

“Collaboration needs to bring together real-time connections and non-real-time information,” Gates said.

SharePoint, with its Team Spaces, scheduling and planning capabilities, broadens what Gates repeatedly described as the “rich” Communicator experience.

By connecting with Active Directory, users can search for people within the organization, not only by name but by roles and attributes, to find those with specific expertise or responsibilities pertaining to the task at hand.

Microsoft didn’t announce pricing information or a firm ship date for Communicator; executives said much of its functionality will be included in the Live Communications Server client access license, while the telephony-specific features will have a separate license.

Communicator will be released with full features to Office 2003 users; Office XP users will be able to take advantage of some of its functionality. In the second half of the year, Microsoft plans to add a Web-based version of Communicator for use with the Macintosh and Unix operating systems, as well as for earlier versions of Windows.

Gates said the enhancements delivered to Live Communications Server, which will be delivered via a service pack in the second quarter of the year, add the features business users asked for: administration via Microsoft Operations Manager, the ability to connect without establishing a full virtual private network connection and IM interoperability.

The server service pack will be delivered as a free download sometime in the second quarter of this year. The new version allows presence information and IM to be extended to partners using different IM clients for an additional $13 to $16 per user per year.

“Corporations get the best of both worlds,” Gates said. “If they want to connect to their customers, they don’t force the customer to get a new IM client.”

At the same time, the company can log IM traffic to meet government regulations and filter it to reduce SPIM . Encryption can be added via an MTLS-based link between the Live Communications Server user and the public network’s data centers.

Anoop Gupta, Microsoft corporate vice president for real-time collaboration, demonstrated the new version of Microsoft Live Meeting in a multi-city demonstration. The new version will be available on March 11.

Mark Burnett, executive producer of the television show “The Apprentice,” helped Microsoft executives and a former cast member show how Microsoft Office files can be displayed during a meeting, as well as a shared white board. Burnett announced that in a future show, Apprentice team members would use the collaboration tool.

In addition to Communicator, Live Meeting 2005 integrates with MSN Messenger, Windows Messenger and Office applications.

Live Meeting is available as a hosted service, but Gupta said that a version that enterprises can run inside their firewalls would be available in the future.

“We’re making sure that all of the modalities — text, voice, video, phones or Web conferencing — integrate into a simple, seamless experience for workers,” Gupta said. “We’re also making sure all these abilities are not isolated applications, but rather are embedded within everyday communications tools.”

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