Microsoft unified communications overwhelms IT managers

IT shops find the long list of features in Microsoft's unified communications platform to be daunting and unnecessary, at least for now, say the company's partners.

DENVER - Microsoft's ambitious unified communications strategy may be a bit too ambitious for IT shops.

Many IT managers are saying there are simply too many features and integration requirements that come along with some interesting -- but not necessarily needed -- communications tools, said Microsoft partners attending the company's Worldwide Partner Conference here last week.

More on Microsoft's unified communications strategy:
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Microsoft started investing in unified messaging in 2003 when it introduced Live Communications Server, now called Office Communication Server (OCS). At that time, the software company said unified communications had the potential to become a $46 billion industry. From there, Microsoft cut deals with companies such as Hewlett-Packard Co., Nortel Networks, Intel Corp., Motorola Inc. and Polycom Inc. for telephony, networking, hardware and mobile communication.

Microsoft's unified communications strategy also encompasses Exchange Server 2007 unified messaging, which integrates with OCS, communications client Office Communicator 2007, Office Live Meeting and audio and video collaboration with Office RoundTable, not to mention a list of other software and peripherals, one of which will let users turn a PC into a phone.

"I don't see people all over [Office Communication Server]," said Samantha Ferrie, sales manager with Microsoft partner Ettain Group Inc. in Charlotte, N.C. "Sure some of the features are cool, like being able to have your email read to you," Ferrie said. But the coolness factor is not necessarily worth the investment, she said.

Chan Hettiarachchi, network administrator with SDN Computer Consultants in Jacksonville, Fla., said the number of features across Microsoft's unified communications strategy overwhelms his customers. "They see features like presence [which shows if a person is online or offline for a meeting], and they say 'I'd rather pick up the phone or email them.' There are just too many features they say they don't need or don't need yet."

Microsoft trying to cover all bases with Office Communications Server 2007

In the next few months, Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 is set to be released to manufacturing. With OCS, Microsoft appears to be trying to cover all the communications bases including VoIP, audio, video and Web conferencing and instant messaging enabled from within Office applications, services and devices. In June, Microsoft also bought voice-recognition company TellMe Networks Inc.

This all-in-one-strategy is a strong selling point for other Microsoft partners that are forming consulting practices around Microsoft's unified communications platform. DevNet Systems Corp. in San Juan, Puerto Rico, has projects lined up to integrate Exchange 2007 with OCS, and others to integrate PBX systems with Microsoft Exchange Server.

"We are seeing a lot of banks looking at OCS for branch offices to communicate and collaborate from a central area," said Rafael Gonzalez, vice president at DevNet Systems.

Microsoft has also announced plans to integrate its offerings with competing products from Cisco Systems Inc. and Avaya Inc.

Unified communications' gradual all-in-one approach

IT shops need to look at [unified communications] as a program, not a product upgrade, said Mike Gotta, an analyst at Burton Group, a Midvale, Utah-based research firm. It would take two to three years to really get it rolled out and established, "and that's if you're aggressive," he said.

Communication technologies from email and IM to IP telephony and Web conferencing already exist all over every enterprise's IT organization, which will also slow adoption of all-in-one unified communication platforms, Gotta said.

"Every time you add a new communication tool, you're not displacing any existing communication tool like swapping IM for email, you're just adding," Gotta said. "And you have to build security and compliance around every tool you add and business applications to get value out of it. There's lots of complexity, so much that it will make it a slow rollout."

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