Microsoft set to ship real-time collaboration client

Microsoft on Wednesday said it has completed development of its next generation instant messaging and real-time collaboration client, Office Communicator 2005, and plans to ship the software before the end of June.

Office Communicator 2005 is a major overhaul of the client software for Microsoft's real-time platform. Microsoft said Office Communicator has been released to manufacturing, which means CDs are being pressed and it should be generally available shortly.

In addition to the instant messaging capabilities, Communicator provides users with voice, video, Web conferencing and telephony in a single desktop interface.

Communicator is part of the Office System, which is Microsoft's centerpiece for real-time communication and collaboration including Outlook, Communicator, Exchange, Office, SharePoint, Live Communication Server and Live Meeting.

Communicator also is the front-end for integrating presence information with a host of Windows applications, including those in Office System. When coupled with a PBX, the client can be used to control calls, such as call forwarding and multi-call conferencing.

"You can look at this as an IM client, but it is really a much broader integrated communications client," says Ed Simnett, group product manager with the real-time collaboration group at Microsoft. "It is the right way to initiate a conference call, the right way to start a Live Meeting session, the right way to do PC-to-PC based voice and video, and it links to your enterprise phone system."

Microsoft is working with Siemens, Alcatel and Mitel to provide telephony integration.

Simnett says Communicator also is key for integrating presence information with the other applications and servers within the Office System. "The richness of presence includes not only is the person online or offline, but is the person on the phone, on a conference call, are they scheduled to be in a meeting which is an integration with the Exchange calendar, or are they out of the office. If they are out of the office you get their out-of-the-office message."

Communicator, which runs on Windows XP and Windows 2000 SP4, works in conjunction with Live Communications Server (LCS) 2005 and is a key link for integrating the server with public instant messaging services from Yahoo, AOL and MSN. In April, Microsoft released the first service pack for LCS, including a feature called Public IM Connectivity (PIC). Communicator provides the client support for PIC, although Microsoft said the current Windows Messenger 5.1 does provides limited PIC support.

In addition, users rolling out PIC will need to purchase a separate yearly license, which is priced at US$10-$12 per user or device. Also, the PIC service is only available to users with volume licensing agreements. The Communicator client access license (CAL) is priced at US$31. A separate CAL is needed for telephony integration and is also priced at US$31.

Microsoft also plans to release a Web-based version of Communicator by the end of the year that will run on Windows 9.x and non-Windows platforms and provide basic IM and presence capabilities. It also will release in the fall a mobile version of the client, including support for RIM Blackberry devices.

Microsoft is entering a corporate instant messaging market already dominated by rival IBM/Lotus and its Lotus Instant Messaging and Web Conferencing platform that has been shipping for years.

And earlier this year, AOL said it was ditching its old IM platform for a new architecture called Triton that would integrate IM, audio, video and other forms of real-time communication. In addition, AOL and Jabber announced a deal to integrate their instant messaging platforms.

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