The average employee gets more than 50 messages every day on up to seven devices and today Microsoft and Nortel came together under the banner of the Innovative Communications Alliance to announce to the world that new software will help us manage the deluge of messages across devices, media modes and technologies. According to the companies the goal is to use a single identity across phones, PCs and other devices.
The announcement took place with an energetic Steve Ballmer the CEO of Microsoft and Mike Zafirovsky CEO of Nortel. After an hour spent waiting in line and going through rigorous security, customers, analysts and the press were ushered into studio 8H in New York's Rockefeller Plaza. While waiting, the energetic crowd was treated to breakfast accompanied by a range of new wave classics from Depeche Mode to the Smiths.
Steve Ballmer explained that Microsoft and Nortel have both been in the communications business. Nortel was playing in the voice and video space and Microsoft was in the business of authoring documents, emails, etc.
Ballmer stated that it was inevitable that the two areas would eventually converge. He continued by saying they are trying to accelerate this convergence. "We are trying to simplify, enhance and extend VoIP," Ballmer said.
Ballmer mentioned the need for smart unified clients with separate PBXs. What needs to happen is enough integration to pull together these smart unified clients.
Ballmer sees a transformed world of unified communications where the PBX becomes an easier platform for the development of unified communications. This means Microsoft developer tools will integrate with Nortel and potentially other PBXs.
Ballmer emphatically exclaimed, "We will move to a single notion of a user, their name and their presence."
Three new solutions were introduced at the meeting including UC Integrated Branch, a product alliance between the two companies which is a single piece of hardware allowing VoIP and unified communications in the branch office.
Unified Messaging was the second introduction and although the technology is 10 years-old the adoption of unified messaging has been underwhelming over the past decade. This may change now as the announcement calls for Nortel's Communication Server 1000 and Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 Unified Messaging to interoperate via SIP or session initiation protocol.
Conferencing was the last introduction and consisted of allowing the features of Nortel's Multimedia Conferencing to be available to users of Microsoft Office Communicator 2007. There will be an on-premise solution available in the fourth quarter of 2007 according to Zafirovsky.
Why is this move logical for both companies? Well Nortel is looking to get back in the limelight of communications after a financial scandal a few years back. Since Zafirovsky has become the CEO, Nortel seems to have delivered in a meaningful way by selling off underperforming divisions and focusing on areas of strength.
For Microsoft this move is about 10 years late. They dabbled in this space back in 1996 but never took the full plunge. What they did do is launch a telephony interface called TAPI or telephony services application interface allowing open control of PBXs through Microsoft servers.
The company then launched NetMeeting which at one point was the world's most popular VoIP software package.
Microsoft lost interest in telephony when the internet became more strategic and the company never fully decided to come back into the space until their recent unified communications initiative.
The logic in this alliance is undeniable as both companies need each other. Microsoft needs to find more ways to lock itself into the infrastructure of organizations so they cannot be replaced by Linux or hosted solutions.
Nortel needs the added shot in the arm of being on center stage with Microsoft. This exposure is invaluable and levels the playing field between Avaya and Cisco almost instantaneously.
The question is how the relationship with Avaya, Cisco and Microsoft might sour as a result of this initiative.
It is probably good to have Microsoft more involved in the communications market as Microsoft holds a great deal of weight in corporations. If the company says you need unified communications, many CXOs won't need much more convincing.
The challenge for the communications industry is to partner with the software leader while not developing an environment where the PBX vendor becomes unnecessary. In other words will this initiative be looked back on in a few years as the first step in turning the PBX into a very cheap commodity with zero margins?
After all with HMP, SIP and VoIP you can build a PBX on Linux with limited hardware costs. Will an Asterisk server be the equivalent of a Nortel PBX as they both interoperate with the Microsoft front-end?
Of course Microsoft has been focusing on Nortel as of late so it is unclear whether other vendors will be able to interoperate so closely with the Redmond Giant. I would imagine Microsoft will eventually allow other PBX vendors to interoperate more closely as well but today it's Nortel's day.
So while the meeting was educational and the two CEOs put on a great performance and were very convincing, it is up to the enterprise customer to decide whether these solutions are what they need. Certainly this entire meeting is in line with the concept of just in time communications and should hopefully get all the players in the communications space to focus more on adding value to communications.
There is more, much more to discuss but a lack of time keeps me from delving deeper. You see while the average person might get 50 messages a day, I get far north of 1,000. And until we get all this technology working, I still have to go and answer each of them one by one. :)