OCS 2007 doesn't spell doom for VoIP

PBX, gateway, and handset makers needn't fear Office Communication Server 2007 but should adapt to it

I should have gone to law school. If I had, I could right now be planning where to build my new summer home, 'cause you know I'd be on Microsoft's team getting ready to sue anyone who might be using a vaguely Redmond-resembling code module buried somewhere in one of my open source apps or OSes. Cha-ching.

Or I'd be on the Linux Foundation's legal team, probably with a beard and a corduroy jacket bearing elbow patches, now gearing up to countersue Microsoft for any Penguin-resembling code buried somewhere in a Windows app or OS. Ka-cha-ching.

Or I'd be on some corporate legal team getting ready to sue either Microsoft or the Linux Foundation for crippling an app my client considers critical. Ka-cha-chingeroonie.

But I'm not. Molecular LSAT scores are one problem. The other is having this inner need to work on projects that actually have the feeling of moving things forward rather than warring for a team that simply seeks to block progress in the interest of "competitive advantage" — no matter whose side I might be on. That's why I'm ignoring the impending Microsoft-Linux patent IP spat in favor of a late-day observation from last week's Interop: Office Communication Server (OCS) 2007 has telephony vendors worried. And I really don't get why.

Not because it's from Redmond — though that probably does add a spinal twinge or two — but rather, I think, because it's foreshadowing a technology trend. And that would be VoIP PBX software smarts moving off the box and onto the server. Sure, that means they might be losing some feature breathing room in the short term, but with your big-picture goggles on, it's easy to see it as an inevitability.

For example, unified messaging is pretty much a ubiquitous line item on VoIP buying lists now, but the depth varies. Voice mail as e-mail is basic. But the Office Comm product line is moving those expectations away from old phone paradigms and into new territory. Presence management, ink IMs, multiparty chatting and conferencing, the way-cool RoundTable conferencing hardware and internal as well as federated security. Just a few of the major line-item features in OCS — and I didn't even get to the new emoticons.

Handset vendors may be the ones doing the most sweating. After all, with OCS behind it, Office Communicator makes an amazing case for moving your whole business to the softphone model: a phone that can automatically pull up a CRM record in response to caller ID; go into multiparty videoconferencing at the touch of a button; let your boss know if you're really working and where; share apps and files right when you're talking about them. Yeah, handsets are going to have their work cut out for them.

But does OCS really spell impending doom for independent VoIP PBX and gateway vendors? Not all that much. In fact, it might give many of them a ready-made product road map. OCS is clearly one level above that kind of hardware. For one, there'll be a need to build OCS-capable appliance boxes. When the Small Business Server and Centro folks get off their heinies, a software/hardware bundle that can take you from an empty executive suite to a full server and communications hub in one install sequence might make a whole heckuva lot of sense. 

The same can actually be said for the handset folks, too. After all, wearing headphones and talking into microphones appeals to only one segment of the population. Cranky old diehards like me are going to miss their old fist-grippable handsets enough to make building smart, USB-connected telephones worth the bottom line effort. Sure, Redmond's sniffing around the edges of this market already, but that's hardly going to close the door on competitors.

Hey, the market's uncertain. But while that may generate fear when we're talking about outer space exploration, entrepreneurs should be embracing it. Either that, or think about law school.

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