Microsoft Preps Unified Communications Launch

Gates will show off products including a 360-degree videoconferencing system.

 By David Needle
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Microsoft plans to roll out finished versions of several communications products and discuss future plans at an Oct. 16 event in San Francisco headlined by founder and chairman Bill Gates.

The event is being billed as the formal launch of the software giant's Unified Communications lineup, which includes its Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 and the RoundTable videoconferencing system. OCS brings together several technologies, including VoIP, presence, instant messaging and conferencing.

OCS manages all real-time (synchronous) communications, including instant messaging, VoIP, audio and video conferencing. Microsoft said OCS works with existing telecommunications systems, so business can deploy advanced VoIP and conferencing without tearing out their legacy phone networks.

RoundTable, which was previewed a year ago and originally forecast for release earlier this year, is finally ready for delivery. The videoconferencing system, which gives remote participants a 360-degree perspective of the meeting, is designed for OCS and Office Live Meeting. Multiple cameras built into the unit are "active speaker"-enabled, detecting anyone speaking and putting them on the main video feed.

MS RoundTable
Microsoft RoundTable
Source: Microsoft

Kim Akers, Microsoft's general manager of unified communications marketing, said RoundTable is designed to address a gap in the market between high-end telepresence systems from companies like Cisco that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and simple fixed-view Webcam setup at the low end. She said RoundTable would likely be priced at under $3,000 with a built-in USB connection to PCs and notebooks.

"RoundTable offers a cost-effective way to have ad hoc meetings with real video participation," Akers told InternetNews.com. "When everyone can see each other and participate, it has a big impact on a meeting's effectiveness."

While Microsoft is new to selling to videoconference gear, Akers said the company has plans to create a kind of ecosystem around RoundTable that will let other companies enhance it, even licensing the technology to create alternative versions.

Burton Group senior analyst Mark Cortner said RoundTable looks like a good value proposition because it offers a price point closer to traditional fixed-room systems from companies like Polycom and Tandberg. "And it doesn't have the heavy bandwidth requirements of high-end telepresence systems," he told InternetNews.com.

As for OCS, Cortner thinks Microsoft should expect to take a long-term view in its plans to gain significant traction with enterprise customers.

"When you talk about unified communications in the enterprise, the challenge for OCS is that it crosses so many boundaries, such as security, telephony, video and desktop and collaborative applications," he said. "We might be talking about four to five different groups in an organization. Microsoft doesn't necessarily have relationships with these people, particularly telecom, which has to give its approval."

He also notes that OCS is a new platform and most enterprise customers don't rush in to buy the latest technology. "The general rule I hear from these customers when it's a new platform is to wait for the equivalent of a service pack or update after the initial release," he said. "I'm sure Microsoft will have early adopters and pioneers, but more broadly speaking, I wouldn't expect OCS on the budgets of large enterprises till 2009."

For now, there at least seems to be interest in OCS from smaller and mid-sized companies as well as developers. Akers said there has been more than 80,000 downloads of the OCS beta since it became available in March, and more than 100,000 shipments of the software on CD.

This article was originally published on Oct 3, 2007
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