Microsoft Headed into Avaya, Cisco Territory

— June 28, 2006

Microsoft's upcoming unified communications products will put the company on a collision course with some of its long-time networking partners such as Avaya and Cisco.

Microsoft has unveiled its unified communications road map at a company event in San Francisco. The company by the second quarter of 2007 plans to enable users to share presence information and guide communications to the most appropriate device by adding capabilities to their existing devices.

Networking providers over the past years have been pushing so-called internet protocol based private branch exchanges (IP-PBXs), in-office phone centrals using standard networking technologies. Microsoft seeks to offer largely the same functionality, but will use servers rather than a dedicated device such as a PBX.

"I don't see how [Microsoft] will get to go around competing with Cisco and Avaya," said Brian Riggs, a principal analyst for enterprise telephony with Current Analysis.

The company at its San Francisco event touted the PBX makers as partners, but in a questions and answer sessions following the presentation, Jeff Raikes admitted that his upcoming offerings will compete.

"It is probably ultimately true that [enterprises] may think of themselves of not actually purchasing a PBX but adding the kind of unified communications software platform to their server platform," said Raikes.

By offering an alternative in for unified communications, Microsoft is making it even more complicated for IT managers to pick an IP based communications platform, claimed Riggs.

"The forward thinking CIO really needs to make a very complicated decision now," Riggs said. "The fact that Microsoft is encroaching on the voice communications market is complicating the VOIP migration path for businesses."

He added that although Microsoft is on a collision course with networking vendors, there currently is only a limited overlap between their offerings because Microsoft offers only a few features.

"It's going to be a soft collision for now," he said. "But as Microsoft makes its products more robust, it will happen."

Brent Kelly, a senior analyst with Wainhouse Research agreed that the market is currently large enough for Microsoft and its partners to compete without having any nasty run-ins and the threat is mostly a future one.

"Microsoft doesn't do things very broadly. Companies that need more breadth are going to go to Cisco and Avaya," Kelly said.

In the short term he expects that Microsoft's unified communications products will mostly appeal to small and medium sized businesses that seek only limited capabilities from their devices.

Microsoft furthermore is limiting itself by supporting only the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP). The protocol is a broadly supported industry standard, but it isn't audited for compliance and is so limited in its scope that vendors seeking to ad more advanced features are forced to develop proprietary protocols, preventing true compatibility between vendors.

"SIP is good for app integration but not for feature richness at this point," said Riggs. "SIP will require proprietary extensions from vendors to deliver the feature richness that enterprises need."

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