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Microsoft touts communications services

An executive at the software giant talks up the new Live Meeting Web conferencing service and future technologies aimed at helping office workers share information.

Microsoft's new Live Meeting service is part of a broad effort by the software giant to improve the way office workers communicate, with future enhancements including videoconferencing applications and telephone connectivity, a company executive said Tuesday.

Amit Mital, general manager for Live Meeting, was at the company's Silicon Valley location to talk mainly about the Web conferencing service, which Microsoft launched last week. But he used the speech to touch on an array of loosely related technologies, some available now and others at the beginning of the research pipeline, all with a general focus on improving the way office workers share data.

Loosely gathered under the heading of real-time communications (RTC), such technologies represent the next major area for high-tech to influence the way we work, Mital said. "We see RTC as the next productivity driver," he said.

Live Meeting is an early entry in the market, based on technology Microsoft obtained with its acquisition of PlaceWare early this year. The service combines Web conferencing services similar to those sold by companies such as WebEx and Verizon with collaboration tools. People log in to a central Live Meeting Web site, where they can view a presentation, as they would with other Web conferencing applications. They can also exchange instant messages and work together on editing documents.

Microsoft has positioned Live Meeting as part of Office System, a family of products associated with its widespread Office productivity applications. Mital said that while Live Meeting will include a number of features that tie into Office applications--such as the ability to schedule meetings from the Outlook e-mail and calendar program--the service won't be exclusive to Microsoft-based PCs. "If you think about the potential customers for something like Web conferencing, reach is a very important factor," he said.

Live Meeting will be sold under a variety of plans, including subscription models and through partnerships with other companies, such as communications giant MCI. "Telecommunications companies are looking at this as a way to participate in the big growth expected for Web conferencing, a way to get leads for other business areas and an opportunity to work with Microsoft," Mital said.

Mital also talked about future communications products, including RingCam, a prototype videoconferencing device that combines multiple cameras and microphones to give a fuller representation of a meeting. The device--which might be produced by Microsoft or licensed to manufacturing partners--would be combined with presentation and recording software to provide a remote experience that in some ways would surpass actually being there, thanks to the ability to archive meeting content.

Mital said Microsoft researchers have built prototypes of RingCam devices and applications and hope to have products on the market within a few years.

Further down the research road, Mital saw big potential for devices and software that would connect telephones to PCs, for tasks ranging from using contact information stored on the PC to dial a number, to parsing calendar information to select the best way to route calls. "My PC should be able to dial my phone for me," he said. "The details of how you make that happen--that's going to take a lot more work."