Whats so different about Microsoft Unified Communications?

First of all,  let me just say sorry for not posting anything recently.  I have been a little busy settling into my new role which has meant the blog has had to take a back burner,  hopefully this blog will get me back into the swing of things.

Over the last month,  I have had a few revelations around whats different about our UC strategy and I wanted to share them with you..

What has IP Telephony delivered so far?

Its undeniable that IPT or IP-PBX's have brought about the convergence of voice and data networks and the introduction of network based phones to many offices around the country.  However, although this could be regarded as progress by administrators of such IPT systems,  for the user it has essentially resulted in the change from an RJ11 cable to an RJ45 on their desk phone with not much else,  as highlighted by Gurdeep Singh Pall.  What it has not delivered to the user is a new way to interact with the desktop phone. The key is to put the user at the centre rather than the device,  this is of course where we come in :-).

It's not just me!

Being of a technical background,  I have thought about the above statement quite a lot and toiled over whether something so 'wooly' would have much mileage in the real world and I am pleased to say I am not the only one who has made this observation.  Recently,  after meeting up with the guys from Grey Convergence,  I was reminded of a posting Russell Kirk made a while back which said that after 7 years of installing Cisco, combining data networks with telephony networks, he realised that although it saves money for the organisation, it doesn't integrate into the end users desktop and therefore doesn't bring many advantages to the user.  As the months go by I have this conversation with more and more traditional IPT partners and I find it encouraging to see this partners that were previously 'non-Microsoft' are now coming to see us

Rewriting the rules of telephony

One of the reasons I find this job so exciting is because rather than trying to play 'catchup',  Microsoft has taken a good look at the how we use the phone now and started to rewrite the rule book and basics of telephony ... let me give you a few examples

Why bother with a phone number ? - I first want to say,  I don't think the idea of a phone number is going to disappear over night, its been around too long for this to happen.  What I am suggesting though is that the relevance of a phone number in some respects will deminish as we move to the world of unified communications.  Someone recently said to me that in the same way that DNS converts a meaningful domain name into an IP address,  telephony technology should convert some ones meaningful identity e.g. 'Steve Burgess' to their phone number.  Just like when you want to go to www.microsoft.com you don't care what the IP address is,  when you want to contact 'Steve Burgess' you don't care what his telephone number or location is,  the 'system' should do the translation for you.

Not every feature applies to this new way of thinking - One of the questions I get asked quite a lot is "what standard telephony features will the Microsoft platform support?".  Again,  rather than playing catchup,  we are instead taking look at the problem and working at it from that direction.  A great example of this came about while having a conversation with Russell Kirk about hunt groups. He has documented it in his posting saying

"when you ring Mary on extension 1234 and Mary isn't at her desk, it will ring her colleagues phones so that someone can answer the call. Pause for thought.....

Why do I want to speak to anyone other than Mary? In fact why not tell me if Mary is able to take my call before I even place it. Surely it's better to fix the root cause rather than putting in an inappropriate overlay?"

Although this may not cover all of the requirements for a hunt group,  it does show that a lot of the features in current PBXs actually make a problem worse rather than fixing it.

What does the future bring with Microsoft?

In the same way that IPT has converged the worlds of voice and data networks,  Microsoft Unified Communications is converging the worlds of telephony and Microsoft. 

First of all,  I am seeing this happening with partners as more and more telephony partners contact me for more information on UC,  many realise that they can no longer keep their Microsoft and telephony business separate.  Furthermore,  I now receive email from partners that are not currently part of the Microsoft Partner Program wanting to come and to talk to us about Unified Communications.

Change is also occurring in the organisations we sell to.  With the introduction of Exchange 2007s' Unified Messaging and the future release of OCS 2007,  I am already starting to see IT and Telecoms staff within business having to communicate and work together a lot more than they did before.  This itself causes problems as they have traditionally been separate departments with different management structures and different terminology.  With the introduction of Microsoft Unified Communications,  I see a new breed of Microsoft Telecoms specialists developing,  where they have both an understanding of basic Microsoft speak like Active Directory,  Exchange and LCS as well as the basics of telephony speak like 'dial plans', 'trunks' and 'PRIs'.

Finally a change is occurring in the end user.  With the introduction of technologies like presence in LCS,  you may find that users will pick the most appropriate form of communication where they had not before.  This occurred to me after I was recently enabled for Remote Call Control at Microsoft.  Over the last week,  I have used the phone more than I probably did the previous month because its less of a chore to phone someone.  When communicating with anyone outside of Microsoft,  I would normally email them as a rule because its quicker and easier to do than look for their phone number and then type it on the phone. Since having RCC enable,  all I do is copy and paste it into Communicator and the rest is done for me,  this is made even easier with people in my contact list as all I need to do now is click 'call'.

Hopefully this should give you some 'food for thought' and show you why Microsoft is going to be a major player in unified communications going forward.  We are not simply playing catchup,  we are rewriting the rule book!

Comments (4)

  1. Hi Karl,

    You make an interesting point here,  namely that its down to either ‘lack of user education’ and ‘reluctance to use additional features’.

    This talks to my point that although the features and functions are there,  the training required for the users to use it is either a) not done or b) is seen as too much for the user.  What we are looking to do is make telephony accessible and easy for everyone.

    Lets see what the next 12 months brings the industry

  2. Hi.

    I think most for now you will see deployments of OCS combined with an existing PBX to cover some of the more detailed features such a hunt groups of ‘call pickup’.  This is why we have the phrase ‘voip as your are’.


  3. Karl Brooks says:

    Hi Mark,

    I quite often read your tech blog so thought it was about time I actually participated 🙂

    I think a lot of the concept that Unified Comms or straight IPT does not really alter the user experience is a little mis-leading. From experience this is generally due to lack of user education or partner / customer reluctance to use additional features / services as when deploying to a substantial user base (say 10,000+ seats) there is generally a lack of enthusiasm to provide end user services that were not previously in place.

    In many cases the potential for improving the user experience is there however it remains untouched.

    I like the point on the relevance of the phone number, and agree it’s not something that can be replaced overnight.  Not having phone numbers would be great, no more overlapping or badly designed dial plans! Plus this would make provising on presence across the international arena less complicated.

    I do however think that when looking at something like the hunt group example items such as call centres must be considered here.  There is actually a great deal of need for hunt groups / pickup groups in these areas.

    I wouldn’t totally agree current PBX functionalites make issues worse rather than solving them.  I would say that poorly managed PBX’s result in this.

    I also currently see a lot of call for customers wanting more interaction between their MS products and their telephony systems and it will be interesting to see how this develops over the next few years.

    I firmly believe that presence will be the way forward it’s going to be extremely interesting to see how this develops.


  4. Mark Thorn says:

    Hi Mark,

    I have to say I aggree completely with Karl on the need for Hunt Groups / Pickup Groups.  Say for example you are calling the IT department because you have a problem – you don’t really care who answers your call as long as your call is picked up by someone!

    From what I have read OCS combined with Exchange 2007 has the ability to include hunt groups.  Is this correct?  Also I cant find any information on something as simple as call pickup – is it possible to pickup another user in your departments phone from your phone/communicator?

    We are in the early planning stages of our OCS implementation and also think that presence is going to be the number one feature that our users will love come implementation.



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