Microsoft, Nortel launch unified communications plan

Enterprise users will soon be able to tie in the Nortel Networks PBX technology running their phone systems with the Microsoft Office productivity tools on their desktops, the companies promised Wednesday.

In the first glimpse of their combined product roadmap since announcing a wide-ranging partnership six months ago, the companies announced native session initiation protocol (SIP) interoperability between the Nortel Communication Server 1000 and Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 Unified Messaging, to be available in the second quarter. By the end of the year, they said they will offer a combination of Nortel’s Multimedia Conferencing product with Microsoft’s Office Communicator 2007. At the same time, Nortel will unveil a new product, UC Integrated Branch, which will allow large companies to easily set up unified communications tools that run on voice over Internet protocol.

Speaking from a Webcast event from New York, Microsoft president Steve Ballmer said the portfolio of products will allow IT departments to extend the solutions they provide and drive complexity out of the related infrastructure. Nortel and Microsoft have laid out a roadmap that will see a complete portfolio of unified communications technologies by 2010. 

“I’m not saying everybody should move by 2010, but we think the full transformation will be in full swing by then,” Ballmer said. “The bridging of the (PC and back-end) worlds is having ad-hoc communications integrate with line of business processes.”

When the partnership was announced last August, Nortel estimated the work with Microsoft could account for an additional $1 billion in revenue.

Since then, Nortel CEO Mike Zafirovski said there are dozens of new customers already signed up and hundreds in the pipeline, stretching across verticals in financial services, oil and gas and education.

“We really believe we’re working on a platform that’s open, that’s extensible and that’s real,” Zafirovski said.

In a demo, Microsoft showed how users would be able to use voice commands to access their calendar in Outlook and dictate a message to be sent if a meeting time had to be changed. The two companies will offer other technologies that will allow mixed use of voice, e-mail, instant messaging and video, Ballmer said.

“This is a move to get to single notion of a user, their name and their presence. Am I Steve Ballmer? Not to my son,” he said, noting that systems need to recognize the different ways we are identified depending on who is communicating with us.

Zafirovski emphasized the UC Integrated Branch product, which he said would help consolidate the number of boxes IT departments are dealing with.

“In a typical branch, there are seven network devices for IT groups to manage with no resources on site,” he said. “This is going to allow easier deployment of new branches, which for many companies is a big engine of growth.”

Early adopters of the Microsoft-Nortel products will include Royal Dutch Shell, whose group IT architect Johan Krebbers joined the two companies during the Webcast. Krebber said Royal Dutch Shell is counting on improved communications across its highly-distributed workforce. In the 1990s, when oil was only priced at about US$10 a barrel, he said investments in employee headcount were minimal. Now it is starting to see the effects of that as employees retire and expertise is hard to come by.

“We struggle nowadays to find staff to work in this environment. We need to use our communications tools far more efficiently than we’re doing today,” he said, adding that the integration of telephony with desktop tools is a key element. “Users use Outlook today – they know that world.”

Eduardo Kibel, an analyst with Toronto-based Frost & Sullivan, said the Microsoft-Nortel roadmap should resonate with users.

“Once they deploy the first solutions, (Nortel and Microsoft) will be shocked with the response from the public,” he predicted. “The enterprises are the ones who are driving this market for convergence, for a single solution that will allow employees and high-level executives to be more productive and to cut telecom costs.”

Nortel said it would add 11 core integration services to help customers set up the new products and would have 2,200 VoIP experts on top of its 10,000 services staff to work with users.

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