Microsoft sends message on 'unified messaging'

Goal is to free people from having to guess whether to use IM, phone or e-mail to reach someone.

SAN FRANCISCO--In trying to end phone tag, Microsoft may find there's a lot of competition over just who is "it."

The software maker on Monday announced its vision for so-called unified messaging, which brings together e-mail, instant messaging, telephony and Web conferencing. It also introduced a series of products coming over the next year that should help achieve this. The goal is to free workers from having to guess which mode is the best to use to reach co-workers and others.

But Microsoft is far from alone in trying to solve this problem. In addition to computing companies, it is likely to find itself up against network-gear makers and business phone makers. It will also probably face telecommunications carriers that are looking to build similar presence-detecting abilities into their networks.

"It's up for grabs, really," IDC analyst Tom Valovic said.

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Microsoft outlines its vision for business communications

Among business customers, Microsoft may have a leg up, given its already strong role as the center for managing e-mail and other business communications. On the consumer side, Valovic said that the network carriers may be the ones in the best position.

At an event here, Microsoft showed off some of the unified messaging tools it's working on. They included a new version of its Live Communications Server presence engine, which lets companies show workers which of their colleagues is online and in what modes they can be communicated with. The program, which is being renamed Office Communications Server, will add new abilities, such as Internet telephony.

"The dial pad is not an intuitive user experience," said Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business division. "The PC will replace the older, less functional phone experience."

Already there are plenty of ways other than the office phone to reach people, including e-mail, cell phones and instant messaging. But Valovic said the explosion in ways of contacting people has not made things as simple as it should have. "There are so many options available to the end user that, in practice, what ends up happening, as Microsoft points out, is that you don't end up talking to the person you want to communicate with," Valovic said.

What's clear is that converged communications is beginning to win the day over technologies that treat e-mail, telephony and other communications modes as separate silos.

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Company sees opportunity in merging modes of communication

"The supplier that solves this problem is really going to stumble onto a huge business opportunity," Valovic said.

In the United Kingdom, for example, resellers focusing on converged-communications gear and Internet Protocol telephony grew sales 23 percent, more than double the growth rate of the overall communications sector. That's according to a study released Monday by the firm IT Europa.

"The whole communications landscape is being reshaped," IT Europa managing director Alan Norman said in a statement.

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