Microsoft, IBM see apps as key to IP voice

Vendors speak on VoIP and its driving infrastructure at last week's VoiceCon conference

As part of what is shaping up to be another hotly contested land-rush between the two, Microsoft and IBM used last week's VoiceCon conference to mark their territory in a race to provide unified communications technology to corporate users.

The focal point was IP-based voice and the infrastructure that will drive it.

Experts say the two companies, as well as the likes of Nortel and Avaya, clearly see software as the future with the PBX and IP PBX playing a niche role.

"I think this is shaping up to be very similar to the e-mail battle," says Rob Koplowitz, an analyst with Forrester Research. "That has been pretty epic in my mind; the way these two vendors have come after each other."

Some see a more complex battle that involves more companies, such as traditional networking vendors Cisco, Nortel and Avaya, and more moving parts, including business process and other applications, instant messaging, presence, video, data, voice mail and conferencing.

At VoiceCon, Microsoft said it would ship the first public beta of Office Communications Server 2007 and its Office Communicator 2007 client, giving customers the first glimpse of Microsoft's future VoIP platform. The company also trotted out customer Royal Dutch Shell , which said it will roll the Microsoft software into production beginning next year and indicated that software was the future of IP voice.

"Ultimately, we don't see the need for separate IP telephony and Microsoft messaging platforms. That is our vision, but it depends on whether Microsoft delivers," said Johan Krebbers, group IT architect at Royal Dutch Shell, during his VoiceCon presentation.

And Krebbers hinted at the obstacles telephony providers face as their industry morphs. "Most [Internet telephony] providers don't understand the desktop very well. Most providers come at it saying 'We're the center [of the network].' "

For its part, IBM unveiled a partnership with Cisco outlining integration of the Lotus Sametime client with Cisco IP phones, voice mail and conferencing technology. The pair also plans to create a standardized client that incorporates APIs from both vendors and gives developers a framework from which to build applications that incorporate unified communications.

The announcements, observers contend, highlight that IBM and Microsoft are going to be the future dominant gatekeepers of voice infrastructure.

"If you look at IBM's announcements, they reinforce that the next [voice] platform is a software abstraction, that more things will move up to the software layer, that they are not going to be hardware, that the network will have a role, but you don't want to put too much into the network," says Mike Gotta, an analyst with the Burton Group. "The roads that I see lead through Microsoft and IBM."

Gotta says the difference between the two vendors is how they get there.

"You have IBM looking at its portfolio and asking, 'Where am I strong -- Eclipse-based clients, Sametime, our developer model -- and where am I weak -- our back end is not coherent, we really don't do audio and video,' " says Gotta. "They draw a line in the sand and say communications vendors come play with us."

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On the other hand, Gotta says, Microsoft is looking end-to-end, as evidenced by the plans of Royal Dutch Shell, and traditional voice vendors are realizing they have to play with Microsoft.

"Cisco, IBM and Microsoft are still looking at each other and trying to figure out how close does Cisco get to IBM, how much can Cisco integrate with Microsoft and how much does Cisco want to drive its own destiny," says Gotta.

Companies such as Nortel, which is deeply partnering with Microsoft, and Avaya already have defined their futures and are moving forward.

Avaya CEO Louis D'Ambrosio and Nortel CEO Mike Zafirovski both said during presentations at VoiceCon that the majority of their respective companies' R&D efforts are focused on software -- with 75 percent to 80 percent of their development dollars going to writing code, rather than developing circuit boards, line cards and handsets. Avaya is working to make voice and messaging applications into distributed services, applets and software objects that can be woven into other enterprise applications, such as ERP or CRM platforms.

Nortel's Zafirovski said his company is pushing carrier-grade SIP into the enterprise, while transforming its enterprise business to software and applications.

Microsoft, which also partners with Avaya, is not being shy about the fact that its partners will have to change with the times.

"We believe, over time, you can be totally based on Office Communications Server," Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Unified Communications Group told Network World in an interview. "For now, we also want to help customers deal with missing features they may not have, or to help along those who are saying, 'Oh, can I trust my voice entirely to Microsoft?' They can keep their current system in place, and put Office Communicator next to it, and slowly phase out the old one."