A few weeks ago, I received an invitation to attend Microsoft’s Unified Communications Launch Event in Vancouver. Two days ago, that event took place and I was in attendance. The event was well attended and took up the biggest ballroom (and more) in the Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre. So what exactly is Microsoft’s Unified Communications and, more importantly, will it take hold in the market place like Microsoft Outlook and the Windows Operating System? Here is a recap of the launch event with some of my own thoughts on the direction Microsoft is heading in the communications arena.
What is Microsoft Unified Communications?
The morning started nicely with a light breakfast of various scones, muffins, fruit, juice & coffee. At 9am, an announcement informed attendees that there were 2 tracks; one for technical and one for business. There was no mention of more than 1 track on the agenda that I had printed out from the confirmation email so I thought I would check out the technical track to start.
The technical track was interesting. The first session was actually more business oriented than technical. The session started with an overview of Microsoft’s Unified Communications. The speakers performed a live demo using the internet connection provided by convention center. It was to showcase that the new Microsoft security technology works in normal networks like the ones at WiFi hot spots, hotels and even convention centers.
Here is a video of the demo where 2 users easily escalate their text instant messaging session to full voice conferencing with a few mouse clicks and at the same time adding 2 other users into the audio session.
The best way to describe Unified Communications is simply email, voice and data communications all managed in one single place. In short, Microsoft is launching the Office Communicator Server and Client as an extension to their current product of Office 2007. Office Communicator works seamlessly with Outlook (Microsoft’s ever popular email client).
End User Perspective on Unified Communications
From the end user perspective, you can now manage emails, voice mail, telephony, instant messaging (IM), audio & video conferencing from the new Microsoft Communicator client.
Why 1 Single Point of Management through Office Communicator?
From an user perspective, you will now be able to:
- Receive Asynchronous (email, voice mail, IM) and Synchronous (IM, audio & video conferencing, voice calls) messages all in one place
- Simplify communications with “Presence” – the ability to tell if your contacts are in a meeting, on the road or only available by mobile
- Let others know the best way to contact you – ie. by IM, email, voice mail, voice call etc… at any given time and based on your own work schedule
- Use your PC as a “soft” phone through Microsoft’s VoIP technology
- Click to call contacts – no longer need to memorize or lookup telephone numbers
- Forward desk voice calls to cell phone
- Simultaneous ring desk phone and cell phone
- Continue to use current Microsoft Outlook without changing to a new email & calendar client
IT Perspective on Unified Communications
From an IT perspective, you simply run Office Communicator Server 2007 (OCS) on top of Exchange and things will work seamlessly together.
How OCS Management Will Help IT
From an IT perspective, you will now be able to:
- Roll out and encourage employees to use IM for work communication and know that it’s secured and tracked for legal & risk management purposes
- Run OCS in conjunction with Exchange and data will be shared seamlessly
- Manage user accounts, secure and backup all communications at 1 single point
Is Microsoft Unified Communications Really That Good?
During the morning sessions, I was very intrigued with Office Communicator’s ability to streamline email, voice and data communication. I can see how Presence technology (the ability to see and reach your contacts in the most suitable fashion) and managing voice calls through a PC has benefits.
But as I absorbed additional information in the afternoon business sessions and was able to draw a more complete picture, some concerns and questions began to pop up. Such things as:
- To save costs, Microsoft is proposing telephony over a network (VoIP). In fact, Microsoft was diligent at this launch in pointing out that they are now a software based telephony provider (using Nortel’s hardware). I am not sure today’s network infrastructure is stable enough to completely handle mission critical voice calls. Networks go down. That is a fact. So if the telephone is mission critical like in health care, financial, sales & marketing and even many technology related requirements, the “soft” phone proposal may not be the best option.
- Less the CEO of a corporation making a mandate that all outside sales agents will begin to use the “soft” phone while on the road to save on long distance costs, I think there will be a huge revolt from tying sales calls to an internet connection. I am not sure if VoIP call quality will be as good as the cell or regular phone network. During the demo’s throughout the launch day, voice quality was definitely not the greatest.
- Throughout the day, I heard many presenters talk about cost savings of long distance charges from employees who are traveling but there was no mention if the mobile Communicator Client can take advantage of VoIP (ie. make a VoIP call from your mobile phone). Even if it can, an internet connection is required to make this work so there is still cost issues and connectivity requirements in play here.
- Video conferencing, audio conferencing, multiple phone ringing, receiving voice mail in email, seeing if others are online or not in IM are definitely not new concepts. Many users are already taking advantage of these tools on any given day. But Microsoft is offering the whole ball of wax with 1 single point of contact. More importantly, all of it will be secured and tracked. The new Office Communicator deals with convenience and risk management more than introducing new technology to the market place.
Although there were business case studies and video testimonials presented from organizations such as the Edmonton Oilers (National Hockey League) and the Ontario Association of Community Care Access Centres (health care), I think this launch is still a soft one for Unified Communications. A Microsoft representative I was speaking with was not able to provide pricing yet.
Summary of Office Communicator
My impression of Office Communicator and the whole concept of Unified Communications is that it is still very new outside of the Microsoft corporation. I do not run Exchange and just out of curiosity, was interested to see if Communicator would work as a standalone product. While speaking with a rep from Avanade, a global IT consultancy specializing in Microsoft enterprise platforms, even he told me OCS cannot run as a standalone without an Exchange server. However, I found out differently on my way out of the conference when I bumped into one of the Microsoft speakers and I posed the question to him. Yes, OCS can run on it’s own for all of you who are interested to test it out. But you will, of course, be missing many of the goodies that are available only through integration with Exchange. What a standalone OCS + Communicator Client setup will do is still provide Presence information through monitoring user activity on the PC and information stored in Outlook.
Is full communications track ability and security something that is missing at your company’s risk assessment management? More importantly, is there enough of an incentive for you do something about it? If the answer is yes to both of these questions, then this enterprise level solution may be your answer. It’s not new technology but Microsoft’s Office Communicator does provide one single point to manage all your communications, access anywhere capability and all the while doing it securely with tracking.
Thanks to Microsoft for the great event (which included breakfast, lunch and a cocktail session) and for the evaluation copy of Office Communicator Server and Office Communicator Client.
Did you attend this event (either in Vancouver or somewhere else)? Are you already reaping the rewards from OCS? Does Unified Communications sound like something you would be interested at implementing? I would love to hear from you. Do leave your thoughts.