Cisco fleshes out Microsoft cooperation

Industry giants to share presence information, voicemail, Web conferencing

Cisco Systems's highly publicised cooperation with Microsoft on unified communications will focus on sharing presence information as well as on voice mail, Web conferencing and other areas, a Cisco executive said.

Cisco CEO John Chambers and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer have pledged to make their companies' technologies work together even as they compete in areas such as voice call control. Details of the effort have been scarce, and some critics have called the Webcast promise a mere show of peace between two companies struggling over the lucrative communications and collaboration business.

Unified communications is a buzzword for combining all forms of IP (Internet Protocol) communications, making them accessible on a single client or from within applications. Because voice calls, text messaging, videoconferences and online collaboration can all be controlled by software now, Microsoft is pitted against Cisco and longtime telecommunications vendors in the battle for this market.

Cisco's executive sponsor of the partnership in the unified communications area, Rick McConnell, outlined one key objective of the effort in a meeting with reporters.

Currently, Cisco federates all the presence and availability information from its unified communications systems and publishes that data to Microsoft's Office Communications Server (OCS), which can then push it to Microsoft clients. Microsoft doesn't reciprocate.

The companies are working on making the same kinds of information go from Microsoft's software into Cisco's, said McConnell, who is vice president and general manager of Cisco's Unified Communications Business Unit.

Today, if an enterprise uses Cisco's Unified Communications Manager call control software and an employee picks up the phone, a colleague's Microsoft Office Communicator messaging client will show that employee as on the phone. But if an employee indicated in Office Communicator that she was away from her desk, that information wouldn't show up on a colleague's Cisco IP phone. Making federated presence work both ways will make that possible, McConnell said.

Cries for cooperation are rampant among Cisco customers, according to McConnell.

"I'm on the phone with at least one customer per day ... who's asking us about our Microsoft integration roadmap," McConnell said. Cisco's network domination and Microsoft's software role make that inevitable. "We're going to interoperate, frankly, in almost every account that we participate in," he said.

"We have a deep interoperability roadmap, we'll deliver against that roadmap, and then the customer gets to pick," McConnell said. Most customers so far have chosen Microsoft for client software and Cisco for call control processing and multimedia conferencing, and he expects that to continue.

Senior Cisco and Microsoft leaders in unified communications meet at least quarterly and typically more often, he said.

But McConnell didn't mince words when discussing Microsoft as a competitor. The software giant has taken limited steps to share users' presence and availability information because doing so would let users adopt any kind of unified communications client, and Microsoft wants to own all the clients, he said. And Microsoft's forays into call management are weak compared with Cisco's more seasoned offerings, he said.

"I think it's going to be some time before Microsoft really gets call control right," McConnell said.

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