Redmond wants you to get the message

Tired of separate domains for e-mail, voice mail and IM? Microsoft's ready to move you to unified messaging. Photos: Microsoft's eye on videoconferencing

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
4 min read
For Microsoft right now, the business of workplace communications looks a lot like the server business of the early 1990s.

Like then, there are a number of companies all trying to provide the same thing--this time, a way to bring together voice mail, e-mail and other digital communication in the corporation. But, also like then, many of their products are one-off approaches that don't work well with others.

So to make its mark in this market, Microsoft is hoping that it can do what it has done in the past--create key underlying software, and then convince the rest of the industry to build on top of its architecture.

"This is an area that is ripe for that," Jeff Raikes, president of the Microsoft Business Division, said in an interview.

On Monday, the software maker will outline its vision for unified communications at a San Francisco event and give specific details of several products coming over the next year. "We see software as being at the center of addressing these sets of issues and putting people in control of their communications," Raikes said.

The move is key to Microsoft's bottom line.

About five years ago, Raikes talked about aiming to double Microsoft's nearly $10 billion Information Worker business unit over the coming decade. But the unit has largely seen single-digit growth, despite Microsoft's expansion of its Office business with things like Live Meeting and the collaboration program Groove.

Unified communications software is an important part of Raikes' effort to get back to double-digit growth and to reach his lofty goal of increasing the unit's business twofold.

"It will certainly be a multibillion-dollar business for us in just a few years," Raikes said. "We are going to see a lot of growth."

Raikes said he will go into more detail on his plans at a meeting at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., headquarters next month for financial analysts.

New names, features
On the product side of its new push, Microsoft is largely expanding several existing communications titles into new areas. Live Communications Server, which provides business instant messaging and a way to see which employees are online, is being renamed Office Communications Server, for example. The next version is expected to build in Internet telephony, and voice and video conferencing. It will also have Web conferencing abilities via Microsoft's Live Meeting technology.

Microsoft Office Roundtable

The company also plans to add telephony features to Office Communicator, an employee desktop product that has largely been used as an instant-messaging client. And with Exchange 2007, the next update to the e-mail server software, workers will be able to access voice mail and faxes from their PC, Microsoft said. It will also let them dial in to a telephone to get voice access to their e-mail, calendar and other information.

The new Exchange is due late this year or early next year, while the new versions of Office Communicator and Office Communications Server are due out in the second quarter of next year.

Microsoft is not alone in eyeing this market. There are the many niche providers that already offer similar technology to the products the software maker is releasing. Beyond that are the big players, including Cisco, that are going after unified messaging customers.

The foundation for Microsoft's push into unified communications was laid earlier this year, when it merged its Real-Time Communications unit with its Exchange e-mail server software group into a single Unified Communications unit.

Beyond its own efforts, Microsoft is hoping to convince others, both hardware and software makers, to opt to build communications products on top of its platform. On Monday, it will announce a pact with Motorola, which will build phones that use Microsoft's software. It will also outline a deal for Hewlett-Packard to expand its Exchange consulting into a more detailed service that helps businesses unify all of their communications technology using Microsoft products.

A number of business telephone makers, including Polycom, LG-Nortel and Thomson Telecom, plan to produce phones and video devices that have Microsoft's Office Communicator for devices software built-in. Plenty of other hardware companies are also expected to offer wired and wireless USB phones, and other devices, that tap into Microsoft's technology.

"We'll have hundreds of companies doing various products," Raikes said.

The software maker is also commercializing a product from its research unit. Next year, it plans to sell a 360-degree Web camera under the name "Microsoft Office RoundTable." The product, previously known as "RingCam," has been touted frequently in demonstrations by Microsoft Research.

The RoundTable camera and new phones built using Microsoft's technology are also slated for the second quarter of 2007.

On the software side, Microsoft is trying to get enterprise software makers to embed its presence technology in their products. For example, customer-relationship management products can be built to pop up a customer's records whenever they are calling on the phone.

"It's an obvious thing to do," Raikes said.