Microsoft Pushes VoIP to Fend off Cisco

Microsoft today unveiled its next-generation Communications Server product that will allow users to replace their existing phone systems with Microsoft’s software. It’s about time Redmond pushed its VoIP offering further. The product, which goes on sale in February 2009, replaces a PBX system with Microsoft’s VoIP software on a server, allowing employees to make calls to any phone number, to make calls from within Microsoft documents and adding audio conferencing.

The VoIP functionality and integration with Microsoft’s SharePoint product is Microsoft’s answer to the challenge Cisco is offering in the unified communications space. It has some nice features, especially the ability to use presence awareness, VoIP and IM on select mobile phones.

It’s funny how the more things change, the more things stay the same: I recall back in 1999 writing about unified communications, which at that time meant a one-stop online shop for emails, voicemails and faxes, with nothing real time about it. Today, we have the ability to connect with people in real-time via IM or VoIP while simultaneously sharing online documents, but we’re still looking for that one-stop repository for all of our communications.

Microsoft aims to make its programs that one stop, by tying this next generation Communications Server to its SharePoint software. It allows users to see presence and call while within Microsoft programs, meaning employees don’t have to go to a separate presence application to talk or IM about a spreadsheet or Word document. That makes Office the one-stop shop for all communications, including those in real-time.

Cisco is taking a different tack, judging from its recent acquisitions and its CEO’s comments about the opportunity. It plans to create a separate layer of communications services such as IM and VoIP that will sit in the network and work across a variety of applications. If it can be a well-integrated, neutral vendor, it could blow Microsoft out of the water.

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