TORONTO — Microsoft Canada Co. announced the release of an instant messaging client with audio and videoconferencing capabilities.

The release of Microsoft Office Communicator 2005, previously code-named Istanbul, was one of three collaboration tools announced at an event with partners and customers.

The company also released Microsoft Office Live Communications Server (LCS) 2005 Service Pack, an update to its real-time communications platform, and Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2005, a major update to its Web conferencing service.

Accompanying Microsoft in a press conference launching the products, Allstream launched the Allstream Collaboration Suite, a hosted solution offering of Microsoft’s real-time collaboration (RTC) tools aimed at small and medium-sized businesses which will be available in wide release in April.

“”We believe what Outlook did for e-mail, this will do for instant messaging,”” said Greg Saint James, international director of the RTC Business Group at Microsoft Corp., of Office Communicator.

The ability to do audio and videoconferencing over the Web has put back a human element to communicating with others that has been lost in the business world, said Darren Soltes, the vice-president of business development at Homes by Avi, a homebuilder that has been using Allstream’s hosting solution for a month.

“”We try to avoid human contact because it’s not efficient, and we suffer for it,”” he said.

Office Communicator allows the Homes by Avi’s workforce, which is highly spread out, to communicate with each other online face-to-face, he said.

“”Instant messaging was never on our radar because it didn’t meet our security policy,”” he said. “”Now it’s secure.””

The company has been able to cut down on travel time, and yet still hold face-to-face meetings over instant messaging, he said.

Homes by Avi expects to see a quick return on investment as the tools will allow it to cut down on administration time and close sales more quickly, Soltes said.

Allstream added security and encryption to Microsoft’s offering, said Doug Michaelides, senior vice-president of marketing at Allstream.

The solution also provides journaling and archiving support, anti-virus and anti-spam protection and support for BlackBerry devices.

Information workers face a number of challenges these days, Saint James said, including e-mail overload. Microsoft’s job is to bring together as many forms of communication as possible, he said.

Some workers who want to give a select number of people the ability to reach them anywhere, carry more than one device to ensure they’re rarely disturbed.

“”Now the technology is here where you can do this with one phone,”” said Aisha Umar, the director of unified communications at Microsoft Canada Co.

The communications solutions will give workers the ability to detect rich presence, Microsoft said. Workers will be able to view the availability and context of another person before initiating communications with that person.

They will also be able to choose the most appropriate mode of communications with a person — whether it’s via e-mail, phone, instant messaging, short text messaging, videoconferencing or Web conferencing, the vendor said. Users will also be able to control how others contact them.

The LCS service pack includes support for Communicator, enhanced spam over IM (spim) controls and enterprise-grade connectivity from an LCS enterprise to the MSN, AOL and Yahoo public IM networks.

Live Meeting 2005 enhancements include the ability to launch meeting sessions from Office applications, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Visio, Project and Communicator. With Audio Conference Call Controls, users can call participants directly to join a meeting. Presenters can mute, un-mute or disconnect participants. Live Meeting will be available in seven languages, including both English and French.

The integration of collaboration technologies is a growing trend, said David Senf, program manager of Canadian software at IDC Canada in Toronto.

“”At the end of the day, for a technology to be a success, it has to connect back to business value,”” he said.

According to IDC research, this means it has to provide increased productivity. In other words, it has to shorten the time between the need for information and the ability to get that information.

The ability to detect the presence of mobile workers is important as it helps people collaborate, he said, adding that the collaboration market is growing. The messaging space is growing at a rate of 11 per cent, and within that instant messaging is growing at 27.5 per cent, he said. The conferencing market is also growing at rate of 17 per cent, he said.  

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