With the recent launch of Office Communications Server 2007, Microsoft has taken a big step into the unified communications market. And as the years of hype around Office Communications Server 2007 show, when Microsoft launches a product, everyone wants to hear about it. But is OCS a winner? We're not so sure.

This week's ceremony in San Francisco, which will be keynoted by outgoing chief software architect Bill Gates, will feature dozens of announcements by telecom vendor partners. we'll also have to sit through testimonies from 155 companies that have beta-tested Office Communications Server 2007.

True to its Type-A nature, Microsoft has been preparing five years for today's launch, according to Mike Gotta, an analyst at the Burton Group, who wrote in his blog that it's "one of the most faultlessly executed multiyear strategies that I have seen from a vendor in some time".

OCS, the successor to Live Communications Server 2005, adds key features such as internet telephony and web conferencing. Some say that on technical merits alone, those changes don't justify the attention Office Communications Server is getting.

Office Communications Server is a mere "refresh and rebrand" of Live Communications Server 2005, said Nora Freedman, an analyst at IDC.

"The importance of this news is mainly that it's Microsoft," said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at Yankee Group Research in Boston.

Microsoft being Microsoft, many are pinning their hopes on Office Communications Server to kick-start the unified communications market into gear - something even formidable names such as Cisco, Nortel and others have yet failed to do.

That will help "all boats rise (even those that are delivering competitive alternatives)", Gotta said.

Yet, various concerns - some legitimate, some pure fear, uncertainty and doubt from Microsoft's competition - remain. Over the following pages we've offered some six examples.

  1. Should I entrust my telephone system to a software vendor?
  2. Can I really expect some Microsoft software running on a Windows box to be as reliable as a PBX?
  3. If I'm not getting rid of my PBXes for a while, why go to Office Communications Server 2007 at all?
  4. Do I even really need unified communications?
  5. Well, I AM interested in unified communications. But Office Communications Server 2007 seems to lack features we need
  6. Why go to OCS if we're not a Microsoft shop?

Whether you're setting up shop for the first time or you have an established business, Small Business Advisor provides instant access to the most useful products, tutorials and free downloads.

As the years of hype around Office Communications Server 2007 show, when Microsoft launches a product, everyone wants to hear about it. But we have our doubts about OCS 2007. Here are six examples:

1) Should I entrust my telephone system to a software vendor?

With Live Communications Server 2005, Microsoft relied on Siemens Communications to provide the voice telephony component of the software. But with Office Communications Server 2007, Microsoft is doing VoIP itself, an area in which competitors charge it has little history or credibility.

"Microsoft has significantly underestimated the amount of work it takes to build a new voice system," said Mark Straton, senior vice president of global marketing at Siemens, which has since realigned itself with IBM's competing Sametime software. Microsoft is being "somewhat naive".

Microsoft is also minimising the likely degradation in audio quality as users are switched from conventional PBXes to VOIP-based ones, said Paul Lopez, general manager of marketing at NEC Unified Solutions in Irving, Texas.

"When you go from a 64Kbps circuit to a highly compressed 5Kbps stream, it's like going from a CD to an MP3," Lopez said. "Users may be getting desensitised to what true toll-quality voice should be, but audio engineers will tell you there is a big difference."

Microsoft maintains, however, that Office Communications Server 2007's adaptive codec, combined with tools such as the QOEM (Quality of Experience Monitoring) server, which lets system administrators monitor and fix sound quality, will provide as good or better-sounding calls than conventional PBXes.

One Office Communications Server 2007 beta tester, Lionbridge Technologies, agrees. A full-time user of Live Communications Server 2005 since 2006, the software localisation firm upgraded to Office Communications Server 2007 nine months ago.

Today, its 4,300 employees - scattered in 50 offices worldwide - make 400,000 VoIP minutes worth of calls per month, according to Oyvind Kaldestad, IT director.

"People still use their regular phones. But we are encouraging them go to Office Communications Server 2007 for all internal calls," Kaldestad said.

The voice quality through Office Communications Server 2007 is pretty good, Kaldestad said, and better than the regular phone network between many of its international offices.

Lionbridge did not roll out any additional networking gear to support VoIP, although it did set its routers to prioritise VoIP traffic. That was only needed for employees in offices with heavy Internet use, said Kaldestad.

  1. Should I entrust my telephone system to a software vendor?
  2. Can I really expect some Microsoft software running on a Windows box to be as reliable as a PBX?
  3. If I'm not getting rid of my PBXes for a while, why go to Office Communications Server 2007 at all?
  4. Do I even really need unified communications?
  5. Well, I AM interested in unified communications. But Office Communications Server 2007 seems to lack features we need
  6. Why go to OCS if we're not a Microsoft shop?

Whether you're setting up shop for the first time or you have an established business, Small Business Advisor provides instant access to the most useful products, tutorials and free downloads.

As the years of hype around Office Communications Server 2007 show, when Microsoft launches a product, everyone wants to hear about it. But we have our doubts about OCS 2007. Here are six examples:

2) Can I really expect some Microsoft software running on a Windows box to be as reliable as a PBX?

With Office Communications Server 2007, users can centralise what were formerly hundreds of scattered PBX boxes onto just one or two servers. That can simplify management and make it easier to fix things when problems arise. The flip side is that if a problem with the Office Communications Server 2007 software occurs, the chances of a "catastrophic failure" bringing down all of the phones companywide is much higher than with an individual PBX.

"If you're all IP and SIP trunking and you lose connection to your carrier, that's not a very good scenario," NEC's Lopez said.

Analysts agree, including Barry Marks at IntelliCom Analytics.

"Vendors such as Avaya, Nortel and Ericsson all understand customer requirements for reliability, availability and hardened environments," he said. "Some of the newcomers who haven't been down that road could be at a little bit of a disadvantage in terms of truly ensuring 'five 9s' of reliability."

The other aspect is that OCS runs only on Windows Server 2003 and, soon, Windows Server 2008, unlike most competing products, which run on Linux or proprietary "hardened" operating systems.

Windows' lack of reliability "is totally out there as a perception and a message", acknowledged Kim Akers, Microsoft's general manager for unified communications. But she pointed out that other unified communication products, most notably Cisco's CallManager, also run on Windows Server.

Dustin Hannifin, a systems engineer at accounting firm Crowe, Chizek and Co who has been beta-testing Office Communications Server 2007, argues that OCS - if architected properly - may prove safer than conventional PBXes.

"The problem I have with traditional PBX systems is that while they are generally rock-solid, when they fail, there is no redundancy plan," he said. "For instance, with the old Octel [voice-mail] systems, there is only one hard drive. At least with OCS, you can back things up."

That's what Microsoft recommends: users should replicate their main Office Communications Server 2007 server continuously to a redundant server in a different physical location.

For now, that isn't necessary for Lionbridge, which has had 99.88 percent scheduled uptime in the past nine months, Kaldestad said.

The firm runs two load-balanced Office Communications Server 2007 servers out of the same data centre. That allows the company to keep one server running while it patches or reboots the other. And if both servers were to fail at the same time, Kaldestad is confident he could bring up a replacement Office Communications Server 2007 server in several hours because "all of the really important configuration data for OCS is stored in Active Directory".

Finally, Microsoft strove to make Office Communications Server 2007 interoperable with PBX and IP PBX gear from a number of vendors, so that customers can hold onto their boxes as long as they want.

"If you're the type of company with lots of mobile workers and consultants who demand a lot of features, you might go 100 percent software right away," Akers said. "But most customers will move in stages and wait for the natural end of life of their PBXes."

Whether you're setting up shop for the first time or you have an established business, Small Business Advisor provides instant access to the most useful products, tutorials and free downloads.

  1. Should I entrust my telephone system to a software vendor?
  2. Can I really expect some Microsoft software running on a Windows box to be as reliable as a PBX?
  3. If I'm not getting rid of my PBXes for a while, why go to Office Communications Server 2007 at all?
  4. Do I even really need unified communications?
  5. Well, I AM interested in unified communications. But Office Communications Server 2007 seems to lack features we need
  6. Why go to OCS if we're not a Microsoft shop?

As the years of hype around Office Communications Server 2007 show, when Microsoft launches a product, everyone wants to hear about it. But we have our doubts about OCS 2007. Here are six examples:

3) If I'm not getting rid of my PBXes for awhile, why go to Office Communications Server 2007 at all?

For some companies, it could be the features. At Crowe, Chizek, Hannifin said employees who have seen him testing Office Communications Server 2007 "are just going nuts" for its Office Live Meeting feature, which lets users quickly set up ad hoc videoconferences.

"There are a lot of 'oohs' and 'aahs'," he said.

For other firms that are already heavy Microsoft shops, it's the potential to save on their existing international calling and web and videoconferencing bills.

Take Lionbridge, which has yet to give up any of its PBXes, some of which are 15 years old.

"It's probably going to take us several years before we get rid of our PBXes," Kaldestad said.

Lionbridge had deployed LCS a year earlier, so its servers were still new. And having bought Software Assurance for LCS, its upgrade to Office Communications Server 2007 was free.

Lionbridge spent about $100,000 on VoIP telephones and headsets that plugged into PCs or ran Office Communicator, Kaldestad said. The savings from using Office Live Meeting and VoIP let Lionbridge recoup its investment in "less than two months", he said.

At the same time, the fear of dumping their PBXes will recede faster than people imagine today, Marks said.

"Five to 10 years from now, I think half of the market will have adopted either software-based PBXes and/or unified communications," he said.

  1. Should I entrust my telephone system to a software vendor?
  2. Can I really expect some Microsoft software running on a Windows box to be as reliable as a PBX?
  3. If I'm not getting rid of my PBXes for a while, why go to Office Communications Server 2007 at all?
  4. Do I even really need unified communications?
  5. Well, I AM interested in unified communications. But Office Communications Server 2007 seems to lack features we need
  6. Why go to OCS if we're not a Microsoft shop?

Whether you're setting up shop for the first time or you have an established business, Small Business Advisor provides instant access to the most useful products, tutorials and free downloads.

As the years of hype around Office Communications Server 2007 show, when Microsoft launches a product, everyone wants to hear about it. But we have our doubts about OCS 2007. Here are six examples:

4) Do I even really need unified communications?

Experts say many companies remain truly mystified as to why they should potentially invest millions of dollars in gear which, when it comes down to it, is mostly about helping their employees save a few keystrokes here or there.

"Users are skeptical about UC because vendors have done a crappy job of identifying the value proposition of it," said IDC's Freedman, citing IDC surveys and customer interviews. "So what if employees gain 15 minutes [of productivity] from presence. How does that help the bottom line?"

Convincing them of that won't be easy, because "UC is an amorphous collection of abilities, rather than one particular space", according to Jorge Blanco, vice president of solutions marketing at Avaya.

As a result, most companies are cherry-picking applications such as conferencing, desktop videoconferencing or mobility, without taking the entire package, Blanco said.

The global UC market this year will total just $4.5bn, according to Freedman. That's about one-tenth what many vendors are trumpeting, because IDC won't count full price of a product if it ends up being used narrowly as a replacement for a voice PBX box, she said.

While IDC is predicting the UC market will grow to $17bn in 2011, Freedman remains "cynical about what vendors have delivered". And they need to "educate the unwashed masses about what the hell is unified communications".

  1. Should I entrust my telephone system to a software vendor?
  2. Can I really expect some Microsoft software running on a Windows box to be as reliable as a PBX?
  3. If I'm not getting rid of my PBXes for a while, why go to Office Communications Server 2007 at all?
  4. Do I even really need unified communications?
  5. Well, I AM interested in unified communications. But Office Communications Server 2007 seems to lack features we need
  6. Why go to OCS if we're not a Microsoft shop?

Whether you're setting up shop for the first time or you have an established business, Small Business Advisor provides instant access to the most useful products, tutorials and free downloads.

As the years of hype around Office Communications Server 2007 show, when Microsoft launches a product, everyone wants to hear about it. But we have our doubts about OCS 2007. Here are six examples:

5) Well, I AM interested in unified communications. But Office Communications Server 2007 seems to lack features we need.

That's very well possible. Perhaps the most well publicised is Office Communications Server 2007's lack of support for E911 (which gives out a caller's physical location during an emergency call - 911 in the US).

VOoIP systems, because of the multiple, complicated ways that data traffic can be routed, are not inherently able to do this as regular landlines do.

Although consumer VoIP services such as Vonage are required to offer E911, enterprise VoIP software is still largely exempt, although some IP PBX makers are offering it.

Microsoft is working on E911 and is deciding whether to introduce it in a Service Pack to Office Communications Server 2007 or wait until the next release, Akers said.

To get around the lack of E911, Lionbridge plans to maintain at least one non-VoIP line in each office for emergency calls as it phases out its PBXes, Kaldestad said.

Office Communications Server 2007 also lacks a fixed-mobile convergence feature that allows users of Wi-Fi-enabled mobile phones to make free VoIP calls.

NEC plans to roll out this feature in its UniVerge mobile client by the end of the year, Lopez said.

"Do I really want to carry my laptop around to make a phone call?" he asked.

Office Communications Server 2007 also integrates well only with BlackBerries and Windows Mobile smartphones. Smartphones running the Symbian operating system make up 75 percent of the market, according to research firm Canalys. But Akers said Microsoft has no plans to extend presence support to them.

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Another feature that Office Communications Server 2007 lacks, according to Kaldestad, is a virtual receptionist that can answer and direct incoming calls.

Office Communications Server 2007 also doesn't remove the need to maintain conventional fax lines, as Kaldestad found that employees still strongly prefer to fax hard copies of documents requiring signatures, for example.

"It's not a PBX replacement yet," he said.

  1. Should I entrust my telephone system to a software vendor?
  2. Can I really expect some Microsoft software running on a Windows box to be as reliable as a PBX?
  3. If I'm not getting rid of my PBXes for a while, why go to Office Communications Server 2007 at all?
  4. Do I even really need unified communications?
  5. Well, I AM interested in unified communications. But Office Communications Server 2007 seems to lack features we need
  6. Why go to OCS if we're not a Microsoft shop?

Whether you're setting up shop for the first time or you have an established business, Small Business Advisor provides instant access to the most useful products, tutorials and free downloads.

As the years of hype around Office Communications Server 2007 show, when Microsoft launches a product, everyone wants to hear about it. But we have our doubts about OCS 2007. Here are six examples:

6) Why go to OCS if we're not a Microsoft shop?

Wooing companies that are not heavily on the Microsoft stack will be one of the company's biggest challenges.

"If a company has already started to deploy unified communications, there is a very low chance" it will switch to Microsoft, Intellicom's Marks said.

There's plenty of competition for loyalty. For instance, telecom vendors such as Cisco have their adherents. For another, IBM is reinvigorating Sametime to convert its still-formidable base of Lotus Notes users - and small but growing number of Symphony office software users (IBM Lotus Symphony free office software review here).

Moreover, users need Exchange 2007 to take advantage of many features in OCS, Freedman said. But doing that "locks you into specific IT and telephony infrastructure, which doesn't make sense", Siemens' Straton said.

David Sengupta of Ferris Research expects OCS' uptake primarily among "Microsoft-centric organizations willing to put up with some growing pains over the coming year or two while Microsoft plays catch-up in this arena."

Marks also expects Microsoft to "work its huge base" of Microsoft Office and Exchange email customers and grab some "low-hanging fruit" that way.

But even among diehard Microsoft shops, Office Communications Server 2007 won't be a no-brainer upgrade, according to Burton Group's Gotta.

"The deployment of OCS 2007 will be slower than expected within Microsoft shops because of other projects [Office SharePoint Server 2007] that sap IT resources and raise overall change management concerns," he said.

A "critical mass" of customers won't start moving to Office Communications Server 2007 until the second half of 2008.

  1. Should I entrust my telephone system to a software vendor?
  2. Can I really expect some Microsoft software running on a Windows box to be as reliable as a PBX?
  3. If I'm not getting rid of my PBXes for a while, why go to Office Communications Server 2007 at all?
  4. Do I even really need unified communications?
  5. Well, I AM interested in unified communications. But Office Communications Server 2007 seems to lack features we need
  6. Why go to OCS if we're not a Microsoft shop?

Whether you're setting up shop for the first time or you have an established business, Small Business Advisor provides instant access to the most useful products, tutorials and free downloads.