I'm a huge fan of unified messaging, which is built into Exchange Server 2007 and 2010. This feature takes your inbox and transforms it so that it can receive not only email, but incoming faxes and voicemail. The voicemail aspect is intriguing; with so many incredible features -- especially built into Exchange 2010 and coming with Outlook 2010 -- it's worth considering, even if it means purchasing additional telephony hardware.
However, going to the next level beyond unified messaging and into unified communications involves deploying Microsoft Communications Server, for which there were some exciting predictions that came out of VoiceCon Orlando 2010 last week.
[ Fine-tune your network in two weeks -- for free! InfoWorld's Networking Boot Camp will help you double-check the fundamentals and show you how to optimize your infrastructure. The email classes start Monday, April 12, 2010. Sign up now! ]
At VoiceCon, Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, demonstrated the next version of Microsoft's unified communications software, code-named Communications Server "14," and made some predictions about the future of communications software: "In the next three years, we predict that [unified communications] will become the norm in business communications, more than half of VoIP calls at work will include more than just voice, and your communications client will enable [unified communications] with more than 1 billion people." (The new Communication Server is due by 2011.)
It's hard for folks to break with traditional hardware-based phone systems that include desktop phones and legacy PBXes. Plus, many IT administrators are leery of implementing new communication technologies when they aren't comfortable with the telephony side. I always encourage Exchange administrators to seek out their telephony guru or team of gurus before implementing unified messaging, and the same holds true for Office Communications server. Still, I believe we need to move forward on these new communication tools and drop the past. I agree with Gurdeep, who says "many of today's PBXes belong in a museum; they are already artifacts of the past."
When you think about the purpose of Communications Server (and Microsoft Communicator, for that matter), perhaps you are stuck in the past a bit. You see, Exchange 2000 included an instant messaging app that was dropped in 2003 and moved into a separate product called Live Communications Server. Thus, you might think of Communicator and Communications Server as an IM-only tool with presence functionality. You might even regard it as an in-house Skype solution. However, its feature set is evolving to include full enterprise telephony.
Communicator is a "soft" phone that's becoming sleeker with each release, but it isn't the only way to work with Communications Server. There are a ton of great IP-based phones that bring you into the 21st century; at VoiceCon, a variety of vendors announced some reasonably priced options.