Microsoft, Nortel show unified communications road map

VoIP, email, instant messaging and user-presence technology showcased

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Microsoft and Nortel Networks on the 17 January 2007 jointly announced a road map for delivering unified communications technologies as part of a development and marketing alliance they formed in July 2006.

At a press conference in New York, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Mike Zafirovski, his counterpart at Nortel, also identified six early adopters of the joint technologies, which offer combined support for email, phone calls, instant messaging and other forms of communication and are designed to tie Office and other Microsoft products to voice and data networks. Zafirovski said the two vendors have signed on 60 early adopters thus far.

But both executives conceded that they face an uphill battle to get corporate users to understand the potential value of unified communications. In an attempt to get over that hurdle, Microsoft and Nortel are kicking off a marketing and education initiative that will include setting up 100 demonstration centres this year, in addition to 20 that have already been opened.

The road map laid out by the companies includes several new offerings that are scheduled to be rolled out later this year. For example, they plan to deliver an “integrated branch” appliance that incorporates both Nortel and Microsoft technology to provide VoIP and unified communications capabilities for remote offices. The device is due in the fourth quarter but no pricing was announced.

Microsoft and Nortel also said they will bring out conferencing and unified messaging bundles that combine their respective products. In addition, they plan to extend an existing unified desktop and soft phone package offering VoIP, email, instant messaging and user-presence capabilities to Nortel’s Communication Server 2100, a carrier-grade enterprise telephony device that can support up to 200,000 users on a single system.

Johan Krebbers, an IT architect at Royal Dutch Shell PLC, appeared at the press conference with Ballmer and Zafirovski to describe his company’s early efforts to link Microsoft and Nortel technologies for Shell’s global workforce of 112,000 employees. Over the past year, Shell has rolled out about 2,000 Nortel phones that work with Microsoft’s Office Communicator client software, Krebbers said in an interview after the press conference.

The rollout of the joint technologies will take several more years, he added. But for Krebbers, unified communications is compelling. “You’re really giving people far better collaboration capability,” he said. “We know it makes people more productive.” For example, workers in one part of the world may not have to wait hours to reach a colleague in another region, he noted.

Todd Schofield, chief technology officer at International SOS, said that within the next two weeks, he plans to link a Nortel Communication Server 1000 phone switch at his company’s Singapore headquarters to Microsoft’s Live Communications Server 2005 software to improve office communications for the 500 workers there.

In all, International SOS has 4,500 workers in 65 countries that could benefit from improved collaboration capabilities, Schofield said. The company offers medical assistance and physical security services to other businesses worldwide and finding easy pathways for doctors to communicate with nurses and their patients thousands of miles away could help save lives, he added.

But Schofield said he still has work to do to get his business-side colleagues to appreciate the value of unified communications. Because of that, he plans to move slowly with the new technologies to keep costs manageable. “Cost is the real risk,” he said.

In addition to the demonstration centres, Zafirovski and Ballmer said the two vendors have opened a pair of joint development centres. But officials at both companies declined to say how many developers are working on the unified communications technologies.

Ballmer said that eventually, Office applications will be so tightly linked with communications products that an Excel user will be able to send a colleague a message with a question from inside a spreadsheet without having to launch a separate messaging application.

Zafirovski and Ballmer acknowledged that at this point, many IT managers have little idea what unified communications is or how it can improve end-user productivity. The demonstration centres are designed to help spread the word but Ballmer said he doesn’t even like using unified communications to describe the promised range of capabilities. “Unified communications means everything and unified communications means nothing,” he said.

Victor Bohnert, executive director at the International Nortel Networks Users Association in Chicago, said he thinks IT managers will respond to the Microsoft-Nortel message once they have a chance to actually see the joint technology.

Bohnert said the alliance between the two companies goes deeper than what other vendors are doing, partly because of the joint development centres. “They have put skin on the table,” he said, referring to Microsoft and Nortel.

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