Will Microsoft Eat Telecommunications?

Some see stark choices for IT managers in the wake of Redmond's recent UC blitz. How accurate is that vision?

By Adam Stone | Posted Nov 15, 2007
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As the world moves toward unified communications, enterprise IT/telecom managers soon will have to choose between the grandiose vision of Microsoft and the best-of-breed solutions offered by a range of voice and data networking vendors.

Or will they?

Analysts see an either/or scenario developing between the two competing approaches to UC, which brings voice together with a variety of other communications and data applications. But Microsoft partners in the traditional PBX world—case in point, Nortel—say there is room for both approaches.

Certain things are given. Large enterprises are looking for ways to increase efficiencies. Tying telephony to business processes seems a promising route. At the same time, Microsoft needs a new growth channel (it already owns your desktop) and telephony is its chosen path.

But does A + B necessarily equal C? Bill Gates has described an end-to-end vision in which solutions built around Microsoft's Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 become the tool for unifying voice and data. But other players—from the biggest telecom providers to smaller software shops—are also bringing UC products to the field.

So there is a choice to be made, analysts say, and which route an enterprise will take may depend on who wields more clout in the executive suite.

"Who carries the weight? Is it the data guys or the voice guys?" said VOIP industry analyst Jon Arnold of J. Arnold and Associates.

If the data team within an enterprise sees "voice" as just one more data application, the company will be more likely to head toward Microsoft's UC solutions—particularly where Microsoft products already are widely and successfully deployed throughout the organization.

If, on the other hand, the voice people lead the way, they likely will make the case for transitioning from traditional PBX to IP PBX (if that hasn't happened already) and then on to unified communications built around that infrastructure.

In this scenario, Arnold said, a company is likely to stay with its existing vendors for the leap to UC, possibly adding new players to the mix, without committing to an all-out Microsoft overhaul.

In the short-term, the decision may not be all that crucial: Simply put, there are no compelling drivers pushing anyone to change. Sure, UC could boost business efficiencies. But on the other hand, things probably aren't working all that badly now.

"If you are an enterprise today you probably are going to keep the status quo of the vendors that you have in place for the functionality that you have," said telecom analyst Alan Weckel, senior analyst at the Dell'Oro Group. "If you are happy with the way Cisco, say, is providing presence and doing instant messaging, you are going to stay that way."

That's today. Tomorrow may be a different story, particularly if enterprise executives see steadily improving performance in Microsoft's efforts to integrate software-based telephony. The prospect of true integration between voice services and business processes could be even more tempting then, especially if present systems are coming due for upgrades.

"When they do go to replace what they currently have, maybe in another generation, in 2009, then you will start to see some serious interest," Weckel said. "That's when Microsoft could be really disruptive."

At the same time, though, the UC market will not be standing still. Major communications players are busy assembling the 'right stuff' to pack rich functionality into their evolving UC offerings.

Last month, for example, Alcatel-Lucent and Sagem Communications launched an embedded version of Sagem-Interstar's Fax-over-IP server technology within Alcatel-Lucent's OmniTouch Unified Communication suite.

Then again, Siemens Communications, which sells its OpenScape UC platform to large enterprises, last month announced a drop-in, appliance-style UC device, aimed at the SMB market.

All that being said, some take the view that UC is not necessarily an either/or proposition. Perhaps software vendors, big telecom companies and even Microsoft will find that they can live in happy harmony—thus sparing enterprise executives the need to make an exclusive decision one way or the other.

That's the view at Nortel. The company has been heading toward a vision of software-based telephony, which one might imagine would put it at odds with Microsoft. Yet Nortel has partnered with Microsoft on a number of projects, including the development of an IP-PBX.

"It's not an all or nothing deal," said Sowmya Varadarajan, senior manager of Nortel's Innovative Communications Alliance with Microsoft.

The reality is that most enterprises run some part of their businesses processes in a Microsoft environment, especially at the desktop level. In order to attach telephony to those processes, it only makes sense to partner with Microsoft, Varadarajan said.

Another piece of reality is that, in fact, Microsoft does not have all the components necessary to create a complete, distributed enterprise communications platform—and probably never will.

In this sense, there is no conflict: Microsoft UC tools can—and must—cooperate with those of other vendors, allowing enterprise planners to draw from the best of both worlds. As new products emerge, companies could migrate toward one or the other solution, without committing wholly to either path.

"It's a journey," more than a choice, Varadarajan said.

So while Microsoft may want to be your all-encompassing UC solution, that doesn't mean you have to buy the whole package. That should give everyone a little breathing room, Weckel said. "Very few enterprises out there are going to be comfortable with a true end-to-end solution."

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