Microsoft, Nortel partnership moves forward

Execs give an update on the progress of their ICA unified communications project

Microsoft and Nortel Networks have been busy in the month since their unified communications partnership was announced, forming joint marketing teams and planning products together.

Executives gave an update on the Innovative Communications Alliance (ICA) during a lunch for press and analysts at VoiceCon Fall in San Francisco, but they kept the discussion at a high level. Once a product roadmap is ready, they will share it, said Ruchi Prasad, general manager of a newly formed ICA business unit at Nortel. Prasad is also Nortel's vice president of global marketing for enterprise solutions.

The partnership, announced July 18, is intended to bring enterprise voice, e-mail, voice mail, instant messaging and audio and video conferencing together on an IP (Internet Protocol) network and let users reach those services through business applications. The whole system would use the same management, control, security and directory mechanism. It's a vision many vendors are pursuing, but ICA has the chance to tap into the directory and applications strength of Microsoft and the telephony expertise of Nortel.

The initial focus in ICA is on creating a software interface between Nortel's Communication Server (CS) 1000 IP PBX (private branch exchange) and Microsoft's Live Communication Server 2005 software. But the companies are looking to Office Communications Server 2007 when that product comes out in the second quarter of next year, said Zig Serafin, general manager of unified communications at Microsoft. Nortel's contact center and IVR (interactive voice response) systems will be integrated with OCS 2007.

Microsoft will take aim at core telephony and call management features for general enterprises, while Nortel's will make the unified communications system work with the special requirements of vertical markets, the executives said. Nortel will continue selling its existing products, such as the MCS (Multimedia Communication Server) 5100, while presenting the Nortel-Microsoft offerings as its lead products for unified communications.

Meanwhile, both companies will keep joining with other vendors, as appropriate, to bid on deals for particular enterprises, Serafin said.

Analysts at the event warned the two companies have much to do before the ICA vision becomes reality.

"A lot of work needs to take place on what look like simple diagrams," said Joe Outlaw of Current Analysis.

It's not surprising that the companies' overall visions have come together, because they were both heading the same direction already, said Blair Pleasant, president and principal analyst at Commfusion, in Santa Rosa, California. The proof will be in the execution, she said.

In addition to technology work, Microsoft and Nortel have to build up their sales channels, said Ken Presti, a channels analyst at Presti Research & Consulting Inc., in Sunnyvale, California.

Many enterprises will stick with their traditional, separate systems for call centers, voice mail and other communications for some time, Outlaw said. For example, most companies give contact centers low priority, he said.

"I have a feeling there are a lot of companies that aren't quite there yet," he said.

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