It's hardly groundbreaking news that Microsoft is entering the VoIP market, the real news is that Microsoft is disclosing more and more details publicly (I'm member of the private beta for Office Communicator Server 2007, but all the information we get is covered under NDA).
Microsoft's own bold vision is that 100 Million users in 3 years timeframe will have access to VoIP through Microsoft Office applications and that it will cost approx. half of what VoIP implementations do today.
More on that subject later in this posting, first there is some interesting information on Shell's planned deployment of Office Communicator Server 2007 from an article in NetworkWorld called "VoiceCon: Shell bets big on Microsoft for global VoIP plans" following are some snippets from the article –
Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell is planning a global VoIP rollout with tens of thousands of IP phones that will ultimately run off of a mostly Microsoft-based server platform.
According to the article Shell is already using Live Communications Server 2005 and around 1.000 IP Phones hosted by Nortel IP PBX and with OCS 2007 it is planning to do a phased migration to a full-scale OCS deployment. From the start the dialplan will be based on Active Directory and Shell will have a mixture of IP hardphones from Nortel that are hosted by Nortel CS1000’s and Office Communicator softphones hosted by OCS 2007. If this is successful the next phase will be to move hundredsof disparate PBX systems to Nortel and OCS and eventually have all phones managed by the OCS environment. In the end Nortel VoIP gateway equipment, based in three datacenters, will only be used for PSTN breakout.
On the reliability issue, Shell says that it is already relying heavily on Microsoft for e-mail and IM, and states that “For many people, these technologies are as important as voice, if not more important,".
The entire Network World article is certainly worth a read if you're interested in a customer's view on OCS. I especially like the comment about duplicate user directories and how customers prefer to have one identity and one logon for all of their communication needs (Be it e-mail, collaboration in SharePoint, audio/video/webconferencing, IM or telephony). This is line with what I talk with my customers about, professional Instant Messaging is very valuable to businesses; but they see the convergence of technologies as even more valuable.
Back to the press release from Microsoft based on a keynote by Jeff Raikes (president of Microsoft Corp.'s Business Division) at VoiceCon. Microsofts approach is of course PC and software centric and this is how it believes that large savings on VoIP implementations will be accomplished. Microsoft states that 40-45 % of the costs of VoIP deployments are used for buying "branded IP handsets". Also it, as Shell does, sees it as "both and" scenario were OCS is deployed together with existing PBX equipment and that it will be a gradual transition towards full scale OCS deployments (The press release from Microsoft is also accompanied by a short video with Jeff Raikes).
One concern for many customers is of course voice quality and it is stated that –
The listening and call quality offered by a pre-release version of Office Communications Server 2007 was "considerably better than that provided by [a leading provider's] IP phones and CallManager" according to an independent benchmark study conducted by Psytechnics, a firm specializing in voice-quality research.
Furthermore, in the Psythechnics report it is concluded that -
Users have been cautious about PC desktop telephony, but our tests show that concerns about speech quality have now been addressed by software, " said Mike Hollier, CTO at Psytechnics. "This evaluation emphasizes the positive transformation that software-based VoIP solutions will have on unified communications and telephony in the future. The familiar PC can now outperform the IP phone."
So what does all this mean for Microsoft’s UC partners and competition? Well for one Microsoft is now very open about the fact that it will partner with all the traditional PBX and IP PBX vendors, but IMO it is certainly not hiding that in the VoIP and Unified Communications area it has a strategy of eventually “ruling the world”.
As a follow-up to the introduction at VoiceCon, Network World Senior Editor Phil Hochmuth interviewed Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president, of Microsoft's Unified Communications Group and he had some interesting comments on how Microsoft sees the competition that I have taken the liberty to quote here –
… We see a lot of folks going down these one-way streets [with PBX and IP telephony vendors]. They might find themselves in a situation where they've deployed a solution, and because it is not an open solution, it is slow in terms of innovation.
Are you talking IP PBX products from companies such as Avaya, Cisco, Nortel, and so forth?
Yes. These are closed systems. They're just like mainframes. Once you bought the computer or IP PBX in this case, you pretty much every component you buy from that vendor. They'll tell you about openness, and say "you can buy any SIP phone, sure," but when you call product support, they'll tell you, "sorry, if you're not using their phone, we can't guarantee the voice experience." It sort of builds on the fear that voiced cannot be delivered in an open platform.
Many of IP PBX vendors at VoiceCon are calling Microsoft a partner. Is OCS a complementary product, or a competitive product for these companies?
[There are] Enterprises which have a TDM PBX today and are looking to move to an IP solution. Then you have some enterprises which have some TDM PBXs and some IP PBX and their goal is to replace all of their TDM PBXs with IP PBXs. What we are telling both groups of users is that we believe, over time, you can be totally based on Office Communications Server. For now, we also want to help customers deal with missing features they may not have, or to help along those who are saying, 'oh, can I trust my voice entirely to Microsoft.' They can keep their current system in place, and put Office Communicator next to it, and slowly phase out the old one.
In addition, there is some good news for Telco's/Service Providers/Hosters offering Microsoft hosting based solutions in the interview. Gurdeep says that is not planning on making a distinct carrier based version of OCS for telcos, but it is focused on making OCS available on a hosted platform.
These products are getting rather large and complex, especially if a company wants to utilize all the features of Exchange 2007 and OCS 2007, and as this as creating a even larger market for hosting companies (and not only for the smaller companies as until now). Furthermore, for companies with current VoIP and PSTN offerings there are some interesting scenarios in offering PSTN break-out capabilities as part of the OCS offering.
In general I'm impressed with Microsoft vision for Unified Communications; it might not deliver everything all companies want in the first wave of products, but this may be accomplished utilizing a mixed environment like Shell plans to do. The quality of the latest Beta 3 release of Microsoft Office Communicator Server is also looking good and I like the way it integrates to Exchange Unified Messaging for voicemails and also the accompanying gadgets that Microsoft are delivering (or helping others to deliver) looks promising. A simple thing as the USB headsets and the Wireless Earbuds is a big step forward not only in voice quality, but also in user experience, because OC intelligently select the right device for the job instead of going through an audio/video configuration wizard (Just choosing the right microphone is often a problem for users, when there are several different to choose from e.g. from the webcam or the built-in microphone).
Also, when I speak with Microsoft employees and TAP customers that have switched entirely to Office Communicator 2007 as a softphone, the message is that the quality and user experience is indeed very good and "We are never going to switch back to a standard phone".
Interested? The public beta is just around the corner, so go sign-up to be notified about the public release at the TechNet Beta Central.