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Microsoft trying to find its voice

Software maker is ready with a test version of its server software for running business phone systems.

Microsoft is dipping its toe a little further into the world of telephony.

The software maker, which has high hopes that the convergence of voice and data networks will allow it to get into the unified communications market, is ready with its first test software for running business phone systems.

In June, Microsoft touted its plans for the market. This week, Microsoft is launching a private beta, which will allow about 2,500 people to try out its call-handling software, known as Office Communications Server.

"Obviously, this is an important milestone toward that vision," said Chris Cullin, a director of product management in Microsoft's unified communications group. "This is the first time that the voice components of that vision will be available for customers."

In its last version, the product was known as Live Communications Server and existed mainly to allow instant messaging and to determine who at a company is online at any given time.

With the next version, due by the end of the second quarter of next year, businesses will be able to also use the software to make calls over the Internet using their existing phone systems. And workers will be able to make phone calls from their PC using an earpiece or headset from one of Microsoft's partners.

The software will also tie into Microsoft's Office products, so workers will be able to click on a name in Outlook or Word, see if that person is available and then dial them for a call. In addition to the server software, Microsoft is also readying new desktop Office Communicator software that can handle telephony tasks along with corporate instant messaging.

Microsoft first announced its big plans for the phone market at a June event in San Francisco. Last week, Microsoft finished work on Exchange Server 2007, which includes a number of telephony features, including an auto-attendant for answering and routing phone calls as well as the ability to manage voice mail and e-mail from a single in-box.