Telephony vendors line up behind Microsoft

Cisco, Avaya, Alcatel-Lucent, and others pledge support for Microsoft's OCS 2007 interoperability spec

If Microsoft is muscling in on enterprise telephony vendors' turf, most of those companies right now are just trying to get along.

Microsoft was set to announce on Tuesday at Interop that 12 of the biggest names in business communications, including Cisco Systems, Avaya, and Alcatel-Lucent, have pledged support for an Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 interoperability specification. That means the companies' office phone systems and gateways will be able to work with OCS 2007 through their native signaling systems, said Zig Serafin, general manager of Microsoft's unified communications business. Many will achieve this by the end of the year, he added.

OCS 2007 and its client counterpart, Microsoft Office Communicator, are Microsoft's software for VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol), instant messaging, conferencing, and presence. They are part of a shift from dedicated phone switches and software to communications features built in to computing platforms and applications. The trend is aimed at boosting productivity by making it easier for people to find each other in real time and communicate. As communications functions move into Microsoft's stronghold, companies that made their names with traditional telephony are increasingly vulnerable.

However, those vendors aren't missing the chance to get their gear to work with OCS 2007. That software is the path to getting real-time communications functions onto PCs and into Office applications. Microsoft estimates 100 million people will be able to make calls from within Office applications in about three years, Serafin said.

The interoperability specification became available about two months ago in conjunction with the beta-test release of OCS 2007. Since then, vendors representing 90 percent of enterprise communications systems have pledged to meet the specification, Microsoft said. The list includes NEC, Siemens Enterprise Communications, and Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson, as well as Nortel Networks, with which Microsoft has a research and marketing alliance. Also on the list are gateway vendors such as AudioCodes and Dialogic.

A new IP PBX that meets the specification can communicate with OCS using its native signaling system, so an enterprise doesn't have to buy middleware and have it integrated, Serafin said. Customers that keep traditional PBXes will need gateways, but with the complying gateways they won't need middleware either, he added. This will help enterprises plan their migration to unified communications, he said.

"Our goal is to provide a smooth path to software-based VOIP and unified communications," Serafin said.

Microsoft's dominance of the desktop gives it an advantage as the industry shifts, but the game isn't over yet, analysts said.

"Everyone's saying they want that next level of sophistication ... but who's going to win that space is yet to be decided," said Forrester Research Inc. analyst Elizabeth Herrell.

Yankee Group Inc.'s Zeus Kerravala sees the field narrowing, however. Cisco and Microsoft are the vendors to watch, he said. OCS 2007 is expected to emerge from beta in the middle of the year and if Microsoft can't work out any major bugs by the year's end, enterprises will look elsewhere, he said.

Even with vendors building in Microsoft interoperability, unified communications will be no easy task for network engineers, because it's still new technology, Herrell said.

"Those willing to work and be an early adopter might get (the benefits) earlier," she said.

Interop, in Las Vegas, runs through Friday.