Microsoft shows off new unified communications phones

Microsoft unveils 15 phones that help unify e-mail, instant messaging, and videoconferencing functions

Microsoft is launching a qualification program for phones that are compatible with its unified communications products.

On Monday, Microsoft will show off 15 phones made by a variety of vendors including Samsung, LG-Nortel, NEC, Plantronics, Asus, GN, Polycon, Tatung, and Vitelix that will carry a sticker alerting customers that they are certified for use with Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 and Microsoft Office Communicator 2007.

The Microsoft communications software is available to users that are part of a public beta program. Combined with other Microsoft programs, they unify e-mail, instant messaging, and videoconferencing functions so that users can do such things as click an e-mail message to make a VoIP call to its sender. The software also supports standard desk phone features.

Microsoft designed the software to be compatible with phones already on the market. The new qualification program is meant to assure buyers that devices will work out of the box with Microsoft's unified communications products.

In order to qualify for the certification, handsets must include wideband audio support, comply with a wide range of VoIP codecs, and include specific user interface elements, said Eric Swift, senior director of unified communications product management for Microsoft.

Some of the new phones connect directly to a USB port so that mobile workers can bring the phone with them and use it along with their laptop to access features typically support only on desk phones, such as call forwarding and conferencing.

Other new phones include Bluetooth and video capabilities.

"We're looking to ignite partner innovation to bring software economics to what has been proprietary," said Swift. Microsoft hopes that the communications software and the qualification program will make it easier for hardware developers to create innovative new phone products in a phone industry that he describes as remaining stagnant for many years.

Microsoft's Office Communications Server competes with VoIP products from networking giants such as Cisco Systems and Avaya. Microsoft hopes to establish an edge against them by integrating its server with widely used products such as Exchange 2007 and enabling unified services.

Microsoft planned to make the announcement about the new phones and the qualification program on Monday at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference.