Microsoft Office finds its voice

Company readies public beta test of latest Office Communications Server, which will let users make phone calls from other Office applications.

After months of anticipation, corporate customers will soon get their hands on a beta version of Microsoft's voice over IP software, an event that marks an important step in the evolution of corporate communications.

Microsoft is staging the long-awaited coming-out party for its IP telephony software with an announcement that the public beta release of Office Communications Server 2007, Microsoft's voice over IP and unified communications server, and Office Communicator 2007, Microsoft's unified communications client, will be available to testers later this month.

The announcement will be made by Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's Business Division, during a keynote address Wednesday morning at the VoiceCon trade show in Orlando, Fla.

The launch of the new software puts Microsoft head to head with other companies selling IP telephony and unified communications software to large companies. As the No. 1 supplier of desktop software to most businesses around the world, Microsoft will likely be a formidable competitor not only to the traditional telephony players, such as Avaya, but also to its longtime partner and more recent rival Cisco Systems.

"Microsoft, because it is Microsoft, will have a big impact on the market," said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with the Yankee Group. "They will be able to use their influence with customers on the applications and desktop front as another way into the customer account."

But more than adding a new competitor to the mix, Microsoft's entry into the corporate telephony market also marks the next evolution in communications. Tying voice services into Microsoft Office applications turns telephony into another software feature rather than making it a separate and standalone product that requires its own hardware and team of technicians to purchase, install and manage it.

Kerravala said he sees communications being embedded in a slew of other applications from wikis to blogs to podcasts, not to mention the vast array of business applications.

"Once telephony stops being a separate product, there is a lot of room to integrate it with some Web 2.0 technologies," he said. "Microsoft hasn't addressed this just yet, but they seem to be headed there. You shouldn't have to switch applications to make a phone call or send a message."

Raikes said during a recent interview that he believes a software-based approach to IP telephony could revolutionize corporate communications by reducing costs and improving the efficiency of interactions.

"When you get voice and unified communications integrated into the productivity and line of business application infrastructure," he said, "you suddenly open up all kinds of great new value that users really haven't been able to take advantage of."

Microsoft first announced that it was integrating telephony with its Live Communications Server last summer. Soon after that, it announced that it was working with veteran telecommunications equipment maker Nortel Networks to help provide corporate customers with a complete solution that included infrastructure equipment and call-signaling software, as well as desktop software to integrate communications into business applications used on a daily basis.

Click on a name, make a call
Until now, Live Communications Server has been more about corporate messaging and presence than about voice services. Now, with the release of Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007, Microsoft offers support for voice in just about every Microsoft application. This means that users working in an Excel spreadsheet or a Word document can click on a name and instantly make a voice call. Calls can be launched from Outlook and Sharepoint, as well as from Microsoft's instant-messaging client.

Microsoft's Raikes described Office Communications Server 2007 and Office Communicator 2007 as the most important new communications technology since Microsoft Outlook 1997, the e-mail and personal information manager that debuted in 1996. He predicted that the new products would change the way people contact each other by providing more efficient and effective communications.

"This software release is a major step in terms of voice and call management," he said. "And within three years, there will be a hundred million or more people able to make phone calls from Outlook, SharePoint and other Microsoft Office System applications."

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