Microsoft Communicates

It’s Mother’s Day and what’s Mother’s Day about except communication?

All those phone calls and cards, not to mention all those flowers and chocolates. That must be why Microsoft chose this week to unveil a budding ecosystem of new devices designed to work seamlessly with its unified communications suite, Microsoft Office Communicator 2007, which debuted last March.

OK, maybe the announcement was really timed for WinHEC this week. But if Mom has a computer and makes phone calls, chances are she’s going to think Office Communicator 2007 is a swell present — longer lasting than flowers and less fattening than candy.

Last week, Microsoft brought its Office Communicator 2007 demo to San Francisco, where I got to try out the software and see some of the new hardware at work.

“Today all forms of communication are separate, especially voice,” says Chris Cullin, Director Product Management Microsoft Unified Communications Group. “When you’re working and have to make a call, you have to go to the phone system. The phone is moving away from the mainstream of communications. Email and IM are starting to replace the phone. A recent Harris study reports that 60 percent of people use PCs for primary communications instead of the phone.”

With Office Communicator, Microsoft aims to do for communications what it did for PCs in the 80s: Separate the hardware from the software.

“In the 80s, software changed the industry dynamics,” explains Cullin. “We’re taking the core software of business communications, using open APIs and standards to build an open platform and build an ecosystem of partners to provide devices like handsets and headsets.”

This week’s announcement brings the telephone back into the mainstream, according to Cullin.

“The timing is right to provide convergence by moving voice to the PC,” he says. “It’s time to move voice to software, and then voice is just an extension of the software stack.”

At the center of the ecosystem is, of course, Microsoft’s software: Office Communications Server 2007 and the Office Communicator 2007 client for the desktop. With Communicator, Microsoft seems so far to be avoiding the feature “bloat” of other Office applications, delivering a simple and elegant solution that works naturally and unobtrusively.

Pick up the phone and automatically your Outlook contact list pops up, with rich presence indicators; for example, if you’re not at your desk but are available on your mobile phone. It also keeps a record of recent contacts and, if you’re looking for a number, makes a best guess about the person you want based on recent contacts.

When you receive a call, Communicator shows you who’s calling and answers over the speakerphone by default.

If you’re reading an email and it seems like a conversation is needed, click on the phone icon in the email header and pick up the phone. Not only does Communicator place the call for you, your name and the subject of the email pops up on your party’s screen.

Want to make a video call, click on the camera icon. Video is just an extension of the communication.

You can also click to transfer a call, say to your mobile phone, as you’re running out of the office. No more, “let me call you back on my cell phone.”

“It has to be dead simple for the user,” observes Cullin.

Currently, there are 15 devices that are in beta with Communicator, including IP phones, USB phones, wired and wireless headsets, conferencing phones, LCD monitors and laptops. All the devices are plug-and-play — no drivers needed — and have wideband audio, which improves sound quality. The reference designs were developed with the input of LG Nortel and Polycom. Communicator is service provider agnostic.

The most basic devices in the group are the desk phones — the LG-Nortel USB model IP8501 and Polycom CX200 Desktop Phone — which have a familiar handset. But instead of a keypad, the devices have four buttons.

If you just can’t give up the keypad on your desk, there are the ViTELiX Unified Communications Phone and the NEC UC USB phone.

Both are bare-bones phones with the familiar form factor. If you want to be more upscale, there are the LG-Nortel IP Phone 8450 and the Polycom CX700 IP Phone. These add large touch-screen displays with presence status and dial-by-name, simple conference call setup, and a fingerprint scanner (so everyone will know for sure who made those calls).

For the road warrior, there’s the ASUS S7F laptop with built-in 1.3-mega-pixel webcam and microphone and Communicator integration. If you don’t want to buy a new laptop, you can use the Polycom CX100 Speakerphone. About the size of a PDA, the USB device also doubles as a portable speaker for CD-quality music.

Of course, the most elegant solution is no phone at all. The Samsung SyncMaster 225UW fits the bill. The sleek all-black 22-inch high-resolution monitor includes a 2.0-mega-pixel webcam and dual-array microphone and speakers.

The interoperability spec for Office Communicator is available to partners so that the software can be integrated into existing PBXs and phone systems, letting customers avoid wholesale replacement.

Currently Microsoft is offering Office Communicator and Communicator devices in a public beta. You can download the beta and see the complete list of devices here.

The fly in the ointment? Office Communicator 2007 isn’t available yet for the Mac. However, Cullin says that’s in the works. But this first entry is a promising start and us Mac users can only hope that we’re not too far behind.

“Customers have choices,” concludes Cullin. “Device partners can tap into the growth of unified communications that will provide diversity and a broad portfolio of devices.”

So now you have no excuse for not calling Mom. Just click on “Mom” and you’re in business. Add in Gaboogie, and the call will be scheduled for you.