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It's October: Must be Time for an OCS Launch

The company notes that over half of Fortune 500 companies have already licensed OCS and have it interoperating with their existing PBXs. But - we don't know how many of those companies are using OCS side-by-side with their PBXs primarily for enterprise-grade, secure IM and presence, as opposed to using it for their company's voice communications. I would imagine the number of companies using OCS without a PBX is pretty small, although I have spoken with some SMBs that are doing this.

There are three elements of the new OCS release: enterprise voice, complete audio, video and web conferencing and collaboration solution, and communications enabled business processes (CEBP).

For enterprise voice, Microsoft's vision is "A complete software powered VOIP solution offering accelerated innovation and improved returns for customers." When I was briefed by Eric Swift about OCS 2007 R2, Eric pointed out that R2 fills in the gaps of enterprise voice requirements. Eric explained that there are 35 core features needed for an enterprise voice solution, and that the first release of OCS provided 71% of these calling features. R2 provides an additional 17% of those features, and the rest will be added in 2010.

Other new capabilities include mobility features that extend the enterprise dial plans to cellular calls, enabling users to press click-to-call from their cell phone and have OCS call them and the other party to set up the call. Communicator Mobile lets business users communicate with each other using presence and IM capabilities from the their mobile phones, with features like single number reach that provides one number for reaching and identifying end users, so that calls can look as though they came from an employee's office phone number rather than their mobile phone. The recipient will see the caller''s corporate phone number, rather than their cell phone number.

Other voice capabilities include Response Group, which provides user configurable call treatment, queuing and routing, enabling teams to set up a call workflow to answer incoming calls, route to a queue and deliver to an available team member to respond to the inquiry. Features include IVR, speech recognition and text-to-speech call treatment, and user-configured routing rules. Another new feature, Communicator Attendant, is a call management application for team assistants and front-desk receptionists who can use presence to manage conversations and provide more efficient service to callers.

Microsoft's vision for conferencing and collaboration is: "Conferencing and collaboration as simple, reliable and essential as email is today." OCS R2 adds desktop sharing, High Definition Video, group chat, and an audio conferencing bridge. Dial-In Conferencing provides an on-premise audio conferencing bridge, and supports VoIP and/or PSTN dial-in, a conferencing attendant, scheduled or reservationless conferencing, and provides direct integration with Outlook.

Lastly, Microsoft's CEBP vision is to "Enable the transformation of business processes by embedding real time communications into applications." By having communications embedded in business applications, communications can be available in existing line of business applications. Microsoft states that, "Users can access communications capabilities like IM/presence and click-to-call from within the business applications that they are familiar with." R2 provides APIs and web services for presence and call control, enabling application developers to communication-enable applications. In addition, Microsoft is providing Communications Enabled Business Workflows tools for creating new business applications. Microsoft has a huge number of ISV partners who can now embed communication capabilities into their applications, making them exponentially more effective.

How will this announcement impact traditional switch vendors? While Microsoft doesn't yet offer all of the required PBX features, and even if it offers all of the 35 core call control functions needed by 2010 (as it claims it will), most users will still not be ready to use OCS as their primary enterprise voice platform. Technology adoption usually doesn't happen as quickly as analysts like myself expect it to (I've been to call centers that still have green screen computers!), and I don't see the PBX/IP PBX vendors going the way of the dinosaurs any time soon. But they need to be thinking (as most have been) about how to transform themselves to adapt to the new world of software (including software as a service). Microsoft has gotten a huge amount of mindshare in UC, but will this translate to companies replacing their old TDM switches with OCS for voice? Unlikely. The co-existence model, where OCS and the IP PBX sit side by side, will be around for quite a while, and switch vendors will need to find ways to add value to OCS, whether via vertical applications, integration services, specialized applications and capabilities, etc.

OCS R2 brings OCS adds some great new features to OCS and enhances the already strong capabilities of OCS, but will it be enough to convince customers that it can be more than an enterprise IM/presence solution? I'd have to say - not yet.