BitDepth 616 - February 26

Microsoft's new Unified Communications technology platform makes it possible for you to get in touch with your people, anywhere.
The tenacious phone number

Microsoft’s Caribbean Territory Manager George Gobin with José Ramõn Diaz, Product Marketing Manager for the Caribbean and Central America and the company’s Unified Communications client running on a laptop and on the Nortel IP-8540 (centre). Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

For some professionals, it’s a dream come true, a phone number that you can carry with you in a laptop wherever you go. For some, it’s the technology equivalent of those baying dogs in a prison movie, relentlessly tracking your whereabouts.
Microsoft calls the phenomenon “presence,” a way of making yourself available for contact across e-mail, instant messaging and multiple telephone contacts. The company describes this new server based software that knits once separate communications tools into a single product its Unified Communications platform.
José Ramõn Diaz, Microsoft’s Product Marketing Manager for Central America recently visited Trinidad and Tobago to demonstrate the company’s new Voice over IP (VOIP) based communications solution and was kind enough to grant this columnist a personal demonstration of the technology.

Business group management
Like most groupware solutions, Microsoft’s Unified Communications solutions runs on a computer in the backroom of your business, requiring an installation of the Office Communications Server (OCS) software and Exchange Service Pack 1, the most recent version of the company’s mail server system.
What users get with those upgrades is significant. The Office Communications client offers a deceptively simple listing of people using the system that has smarts well beyond similar lists that you might be familiar with in instant messaging software.
Like IM software, each listed user has a status, reflecting whether they are online, available, or busy, but initiating a call to that person triggers a much more sophisticated cascade of technology.

Participants in an OCS system have a “unified profile,” which can send the virtual phone call to a number of devices simultaneously, jumping from the OC client on a computer, or a more traditionally designed office phone like LG-Nortel’s IP-8540 which runs a version of the Microsoft client, to a Windows Mobile phone or voice messaging systems running on Exchange server which can package your message as an attachment and deliver it to you via e-mail.
In practical use, all the phones in a company won’t normally be converted to VOIP and there is a need for a hardware link between existing PBX systems and the digital world of the OCS. Microsoft hardware partners have successfully developed links with many Cisco, Nortel and Mital PBX models deployed over the last five years and many modern IP enabled PBX systems can be simply jacked into the network directly.

Unification years in the planning
Several pieces of the Unified Communications strategy have bubbled to the surface over the last year and a half. At the launch of Windows Vista in New York in December 2006, Dave Thompson demonstrated the Exchange component of this communication equation, which allowed e-mails to be read by software over the phone using speech services in the new mail and appointment server. In January 2007, Microsoft sent me a statement of purpose about the UC concept and announced a partnership with communications hardware giant Nortel on a project then described as the “Converged Office.”
The IP-8540 and the packaged Office Communications Server are the first tangible products to emerge from the conceptual conversations of the last twelve months, and they are impressive in use.

Participating in the Unified network
Microsoft has been smart enough to acknowledge that a typical executive will need to contact people who won’t be part of a corporate network, so the company has built digital certification into the product, allowing external users to be certified to participate in an OCS network. Company to company certifications with Yahoo, AOL and Google allow IM users on those networks to participate in chat sessions with OCS users.
The Redmond giant plans to make the application programming interface (API), the hooks that allow other programmers to work with their OCS software, available to third party developers and the company is keen to see what they come up with.

In practice, the software running on a PC isn’t much different in look and feel from a standard IM client, but click on a contact name and you get a range of contact options, ranging from e-mail address to a mobile phone number, select an option and the software initiates the call over the Internet.
In Diaz’ demonstration, his call to a colleague left his laptop in Westmoorings, connected to an OCS server in Puerto Rico, initiated a long distance call via the PBX and connected with a mobile phone just a few feet away, which began to buzz and display his digitally enabled number.
In a Unified Communications world, Internet enabled executives are just a phone call away, and even though they can set their status to “unavailable” or “busy” that won’t keep the bloodhounds of business off the scent.

Download a free trial of Office Communications Server
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