Q&A: Microsoft Delivers Voice Technologies in Unified Communications Platform

REDMOND, Wash., Dec. 11, 2006 – E-mail, voice mail, cell phone, instant messaging, conferencing – all these different modes of communication, which are supposed to make people easier to reach, can instead cause information overload. Information workers are becoming overwhelmed by the complexities of dealing with multiple phone numbers, voice-mail boxes, user identities, passcodes and device requirements.

Six months ago, Microsoft unveiled its vision and technology road map for solving these issues with a unified communications framework that gives people a single identity across all modes and integrates communication into people’s everyday work processes. Today, Microsoft Unified Communications Group (UCG) is delivering significant elements of this framework with the private beta release of its enterprise voice communications product, Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007.

Annop Gupta, Corporate Vice President, Microsoft Unified Communications Group

Together with Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, which the company launched on Nov. 30, Office Communications Server delivers to customers e-mail, voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) telephony, instant messaging, video and conferencing in an intuitive, streamlined experience. PressPass asked Anoop Gupta, corporate vice president of the Unified Communications Group (UCG) at Microsoft, for more details about how these technologies address business challenges in today’s mobile, global environment.

PressPass: How is the UCG doing since you outlined its unified communications strategy and vision in June?

Gupta: We’ve made great progress delivering on Microsoft’s unified communications roadmap that brings voice, video, e-mail and instant messaging together. In addition to today’s release of the Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 private beta, which delivers VoIP capabilities, we launched Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, which brings our customers unified messaging, enhanced mobility and a simple way to manage their communications infrastructure.

Organizations like Columbia Sportswear Co., FranklinCovey and Marquette University are already deploying Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 as their unified communications foundation on the strength of Microsoft’s vision and in-market products. FranklinCovey deployed Exchange Server 2007 for about US$100,000 less than it would have spent upgrading its existing voice-mail system, and gained a more efficient, unified messaging system without changing its voice infrastructure.

PressPass: What else makes the delivery of these voice technologies significant for Microsoft customers?

Gupta: Today, many businesses and workers contend with what I call “communications chaos” from having silos of e-mail, instant messaging and voice-mail. With the added complexity of all the different mobile solutions out there, people are getting overwhelmed. What the Microsoft unified communications products do is weave these diverse modes together in an uninterrupted, secure and simple-to-use experience. Microsoft Office Communications Server and Exchange Server 2007 are the first products that bring voice capabilities into Microsoft communications software. What’s also significant is that we are delivering these new capabilities within the applications, devices and network infrastructure that people already know and use. These products provide more flexibility and greater access for today’s increasingly mobile workforce while also streamlining companies’ IT investments and management requirements.

PressPass: Can you give some examples of how this works?

Gupta: As an example of simplifying and uniting different user experiences, let’s take the subject line in an e-mail. I wouldn’t send you an e-mail without including a subject line; why shouldn’t telephone calls include one as well? With Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, I can simply click on a person’s name in an e-mail to initiate a telephone call, and a subject line is displayed on that person’s phone to indicate exactly what I’m calling about.

Another example of the unified messaging power in Exchange Server and Microsoft Office Communications Server is that, when I’m looking at an e-mail, I can use presence to see if my colleagues are in meetings, on calls, traveling or available to communicate with me. If the e-mail topic is urgent, and I see that the person who sent the email is at her desk, and with one click, I can go directly from the e-mail into an instant messaging conversation or a phone call with her. I can drag and drop another person’s name into the conversation for a conference call. With another click, I could initiate a Web conference or a video call.

One of the ways that Columbia Sportswear has used the unified messaging capabilities in Exchange Server 2007 to reduce costs and operate more efficiently is by enabling its employees to retrieve their voice-mail messages in Outlook when they’re traveling. That not only helps them respond more quickly and avoid missing important messages, but also has reduced the company’s long-distance phone charges.

PressPass: What are the advantages of delivering voice technologies through software as compared to a network- or hardware-centric approach?

Gupta: We believe that the software approach enables us to deliver better manageability, more economical voice communications and greater opportunities for innovation to our customers. On the management side, through providing rich interoperability between the Microsoft voice capabilities and the Microsoft Active Directory service, we give IT departments a uniform way to provide their people with e-mail, IM and telephony services, and make it easy to manage the infrastructure.

From an economic perspective, a software-centric approach allows the IT manager to take advantage of standard hardware servers that an organization already has in place. Our rich partner ecosystem also can provide telephony hardware, handsets and devices that work with Microsoft voice technologies and people’s existing desktop PCs right out of the box to further reduce the deployment cost.

On the innovation side, we’re confident that some of the biggest returns on customers’ investments in unified voice technologies will come from integrating communications with the business processes and business applications that people already have. Rather than maintaining VoIP as a separate infrastructure from e-mail, IM and other forms of communications, Microsoft can provide a single platform to integrate all these forms of communication and support rich interaction among them.

PressPass: What is the role of Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 in this new model of business communications?

Gupta: It is the hub of all real-time communications, providing VoIP telephony, secure presence and instant messaging, and audio-video-web conferencing that is integrated seamlessly with everyday applications and business processes.

This integration can make a huge difference if, for example, I’m trying to contact someone urgently to answer a customer question. Today, it’s common for me to end up calling the person’s desk phone and cell phone to leave voice mails, then getting an out of office message when I send e-mail. But with Microsoft Office Communications Server, I can view the presence information for multiple people who could answer my question and connect with someone on the first try, using the right mode of communication.

PressPass: What role do the unified messaging capabilities in Exchange Server 2007 play in this model?

Gupta: Exchange Server 2007 provides the e-mail messaging and mobility features that integrate with Office Communications Server 2007 to complete our unified communications picture. With Exchange Server 2007, customers can integrate their voice-mail and e-mail into a single infrastructure that lets people more flexibly manage both. It also extends people’s access to messaging on mobile devices. Also, through the integration with Outlook Voice Access, people can use any ordinary telephone to reach their Outlook e-mail, calendars and directory information or use speech recognition to search the company directory.

We’ve heard from Marquette University that implementing Exchange Server 2007 will give its users a much more stable and secure environment in which to work. In particular, the university is excited about a new feature in Outlook Web Access that gives remote users the option to gain secure access to files and data on Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server without having to connect over a virtual private network (VPN). Employees won’t have to install a VPN client to get access to the files they need, since they’ll be connected through Exchange Server 2007.

PressPass: Microsoft recently announced business availability of the 2007 Microsoft Office system client applications. How do the new Office Communications Server and Exchange Server technologies integrate with these applications?

Gupta: We have designed Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 and Exchange Server 2007 to richly interoperate with the Microsoft Office client experience, such as through making availability and presence information available throughout the Outlook e-mail interface. For example, as soon as a person types someone’s name into the To: line, the sender can see whether that individual is away from his desk or out of the office. Also, when people go into a Microsoft Office SharePoint team site, they can view the availability of other team members and decide whom to contact. Similarly, these products share a single conversation history folder that tracks not only the e-mails that someone has sent but also the instant messages and telephone calls in a seamless way.

Plus, as I mentioned earlier, the voice capabilities in Microsoft Office Communications Server allow users to launch instant messaging or phone conversations directly from within an Office Outlook e-mail. We have made sure that the most common telephony capabilities that people want, such as call forwarding and conferencing, are simply and intuitively integrated into a common Microsoft unified communications user interface.

PressPass: What can we expect next from the Microsoft UCG?

Gupta: We have just released Exchange Server 2007 to manufacturing, followed by the private beta of Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 with several more exciting milestones on the horizon. We are working with partners to prepare them for the launch of Microsoft Office Communications Server. Our partners are helping customers bring VoIP into existing infrastructures, incorporating unified communications capabilities into some terrific new devices and weaving Microsoft unified communications experiences, including voice, into their third-party software applications. It’s an exciting time, and we’re working closely with our industry partners to deliver the remaining components of the unified communications vision that we announced in June.

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