Every time a new technology is in the spotlight Microsoft adapts and repackages NT and takes a swing, lately the home runs have been few and far between. VOIP is the current buzzword of the moment and, true to form, Microsoft has got an offering in the works. One problem is that NT isn't really suitable for a VOIP platform as it offers no real advantages over any other platform currently on offer. Another problem is that Microsoft don't have any relevant experience in the telephony arena, so they have had to base their VOIP offering on Windows Messenger of all things. Don't let the fancy 'Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007' moniker fool you, this is Messenger on steroids. Never one to let a lack of actual innovation stop them from selling truckloads of software, Microsoft are soldering on in typical fashion with strategic partnerships and Marketing a plenty.
In a keynote address at VoiceCon Spring 2007 on March 7, Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft Corp.'s Business Division, predicted that in just three years, the average voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) solution for business will cost half what it does today, completely ignoring open source solutions such as the mature offerings from Digium. Digium based systems already cost a fraction of any current proprietary VOIP offering, coming in at a cool zero dollars for the fully functional AsteriskNOW distribution and and just $995 US for the enterprise-grade Asterisk Business Edition. Microsoft's 'just ignore them and they will go away' tactic, a favourite from the early days of Linux, seems to be taken to new levels here. Jeff went on to sell Microsoft's new VOIP product as, and I quote "the most important new communications technology since Microsoft Outlook 1997". Whatever they are smoking in Redmond, it is definitely the good stuff. Here are some other highlights from Jeff's illuminating speech.
"Over time, the software-based VOIP technology built into Microsoft Office Communications Server and Microsoft Office Communicator will offer so much value and cost savings that it will make the standard telephone look like that old typewriter that's gathering dust in the stockroom."
"We're embarking on a software transformation similar to what we saw from the mainframe to the PC", Raikes said. "With a shift of this magnitude, there will be tremendous opportunities for our industry partners worldwide."
For the rest of the article we will refer to Microsoft Office Communications Server as MOCS (appropriate no?) and any reference will be to the inaugural 2007 version. A testing beta of MOCS will be released for download sometime this month and I for one cant wait. Here is a list of the exciting new features that we can expect to encounter.Streamlined communications. Click-to-call features make it possible to call someone by simply clicking on the person‚Äôs name within other Microsoft Office applications, such as Microsoft Office Outlook and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server.Advanced "presence." The technology can quickly determine colleagues' availability and the best way to contact them at work or while they're away.Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 unified messaging will make it possible to view voicemail from traditional PBXs and IP-PBXs in an Outlook inbox.TTS (text-to-speech), which will enable users to have e-mail read to them by telephone.Microsoft Office RoundTable, an audio-video collaboration device with a unique 360-degree camera. When combined with Office Communications Server 2007, according to Microsoft, "RoundTable delivers an immersive conferencing experience that extends the meeting environment across multiple locations. Meeting participants on site and in remote locations gain a panoramic view of everyone in the conference room as well as close-up views of individual participants as they take turns speaking."Tools that travel. Mobile workers can use their office phone number and other corporate communications tools, including instant messaging and audio- or videoconferencing, when working from home or on the road.
People that are already using Asterisk might ask "but why would I pay, what is bound to be an extortive fee, for functionality that I already have for a very reasonable price?". To those people I must again point out the last feature, 'a unique 360-degree camera', innovation costs people.
In the December press release for MOCS, which is viewable on the Microsoft website, Microsoft boasts
"With native support for Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), Communications Server 2007 and Microsoft Office Communicator, part of the 2007 Microsoft Office system, interoperate with products from industry partners including Nortel Networks, Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya Inc., Cisco Systems Inc., LG-Nortel Co. Ltd., Mitel Networks Corp., NEC Philips Unified Solutions, Polycom Inc. and Siemens Communications Inc. Through these relationships, customers worldwide will be able to support VOIP using their existing desktop phones, data networks and time division multiplexing (TDM) or Internet protocol (IP) private branch exchanges (PBXs). Customers will also able to leverage the softphone capabilities of Office Communicator to make and receive phone calls from their PCs, eliminating the need to purchase expensive IP-compatible phones."
What both the press release and Jeff Raikes keynote speech somehow forgot to mention is that, although MOCS does indeed use the common SIP protocol, the MOCS client can only be used in conjunction with the MOCS server. Therefore those of us familiar with Microsoft's business practises could be forgiven for being a little cynical in regards to the former statement. A rough translation of the last sentence, by such a cynic would change it from, "Customers will also able to leverage the softphone capabilities of Office Communicator to make and receive phone calls from their PCs, eliminating the need to purchase expensive IP-compatible phones", to "Those users wishing to utilize high quality easy to use $150 Linksys SPA phones (or similar) will instead be forced to use a clumsy PC softphone which is only remotely usable when combined with Microsoft's $500 office suite". Yes SIP hardphones will be available, but only from Microsoft partners. Not surprisingly Microsoft has chosen to partner with the big boys, including Nortel Networks, Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya, Cisco Systems, LG-Nortel, NEC Philips Unified Solutions and Siemens Communications. Needless to say, a phone from Nortel and co. could be described as an 'expensive IP-compatible phone'.
There appear to be many, many problems with MOCS that make it an extremely bloated, largely useless piece of reactionary software. But perhaps the most fundamental flaw is also the most simple. IT IS NOT A PBX! MOCS wont replace your phone system, it will probably make you replace your phone system with one from one of its partners, but it will not and can not replace it on its own. IT and Communications are converging at a rapid rate and everyone is looking for a way to get in on it. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Many people complain that the solutions provided from the IT hardware camps, such as Cisco don't have the PBX functionality of traditional phone systems. While the solutions from traditional PBX providers such as Nortel are often criticized for their lack of integration in to existing IT infrastructure. To date Asterisk has been somewhere in the middle, it has all the features of a traditional PBX with all the advantages of a system running on commodity server hardware and it integrates brilliantly with other open source and proprietary software. However many large corporations are reluctant to go with a relative unknown like Digium. Microsoft could theoretically get the closest to a one-size-fits-all solution, they already have the IT infrastructure experience and, needless to say there is no problem with name recognition, all they would need to do would be to partner up with one of the major PBX providers, leverage their expertise and actually integrate that functionality in to a solution. Once again however, Microsoft has dropped the ball by providing an (almost certainly) prohibitively expensive square peg for a definitively round hole. MOCS will be a very tall order for the Microsoft marketing department, but that's where the money appears to get spent, so no-doubt this software will move. The question is, how many strikes do the Redmond boys get before they finally get off the plate?