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Can Microsoft Replicate Cisco's Telephony Success?

I think I see an industry trend that should send chills through the Old Guard of the enterprise communications system suppliers. During the past few months I have spoken to an increasing number of personal contacts who are currently using Microsoft OCS at their desktop for telephony requirements working behind their PBX system. This is comparable to the way Cisco helped establish itself in the market during the early part of the decade when a customer was wary of installing Call Manager as a replacement for their digital PBX system, but would install a few Cisco IP telephones here and there as part of a trial project. Cisco shipped many IP telephones, at no cost to the customer, to help establish an installed base, and though competitors may have cried foul, the tactic worked. Trial customers gave credence to the product and Cisco eventually was able to market and sell Call Manager as a standalone system solution capable of replacing a customer's installed digital PBX.Microsoft has sold millions of OCS/OC (Office Communicator) 2007 licenses for IM/Presence since the product was introduced. What most people don't readily know is that the software solution also includes, at no cost, basic telephony capabilities for internal applications, only. Far fewer OCS/OC licenses with full function telephony capabilities have been shipped, but the numbers are increasing. Synergy Research estimates Microsoft is shipping fewer than 50,000 voice lines per quarter, but the actual number is substantial enough to rank Microsoft ahead of well-known PBX suppliers such as Alcatel and Aastra in the North American market. A few desktops here, a few desktops there, and before you know it OCS/OC for customer telephony requirements is everywhere.

A good number of the installed OCS/OC desktops are working behind digital PBXs without IP capabilities, but most are configured behind current-generation IP telephony systems. It is ironic that the PBX suppliers are helping dig their graves by continually promoting the fact that their systems are compatible with OCS. The ICA relationship between Nortel and Microsoft is the most prominent example, where the traditional PBX supplier marketed OCS/OC to customers in place of their own MCS 5100 solution. Once OCS is installed for IM/Presence requirements, it only needs a software upgrade, installation of a conferencing/mediation/CDR server and trunk (digital and/or SIP) gateways to implement traditional telephony operations.

Microsoft is not currently claiming that OCS 2007 Release 2, the current version of the offering, is ready to replace existing PBXs as a standalone system in all circumstances, but does believe that it can satisfactorily support the telephony requirements of individual desktop users and workgroups working in conjunction with an installed PBX. The next release of OCS/OC is expected to have greatly enhanced telephony capabilities, and when available will signal the market that Microsoft is ready to be a serious competitor in the market for enterprise communications systems with a solution that can stand on its own without the peripheral PBX system.

As Cisco this decade changed the equilibrium of a staid market space, Microsoft has the potential to do the same during the upcoming decade. It took Cisco slightly less than ten years after buying Selsius Systems to leap ahead of Avaya as the leading telephony system supplier. In this age of accelerated change it is very possible that Microsoft can replicate Cisco's success time table. One scenario is that Cisco and Microsoft will control two thirds of the enterprise market in a few years' time, leaving the remaining one third to be bitterly fought over by the other competitors. Far stranger things in the world of business have happened. Sears, once the world's largest retailer, was acquired by Kmart, while a once-little-known Arkansas-based retailer, WalMart, is now a global behemouth in the retail market. GM, once so dominant a domestic auto supplier that there were cries to break up the company into smaller units, is now bankrupt, and Merrill Lynch, the largest of the Wall Street firms, sought out Bank of America to save it from bankruptcy and ruin. In comparison, Microsoft as your telephony system supplier is not as unlikely as you once thought.