Unified communications: Microsoft pushes forward with its collaboration vision

Having access to Web conferencing and instant messaging to collaborate with colleagues, supply chain partners, and customers is a good thing. But doesn't it make more sense to collaborate while working with a business application rather than exiting it to start up a collaboration tool? "Affirmative," say some at Microsoft, and in particular, Andres Caldera, senior product manager.


Having access to Web conferencing and instant messaging to collaborate with colleagues, supply chain partners, and customers is a good thing. But doesn't it make more sense to collaborate while working with a business application rather than exiting it to start up a collaboration tool?

"Affirmative," say some at Microsoft , and in particular, Andres Caldera, senior product manager.

"The story here is that collaboration and communications are helping in the context of the application you're using, and it's not a silo or a disconnected experience," says Caldera. "Some analysts call that communications-enabled business processes. We're trying to deliver solutions from that angle."

Caldera is part of Microsoft's unified communications business group, which focuses on developing solutions that integrate typically separate communication channels such as phone calls, email, instant messaging, and Web conferencing into a single collaborative platform powered by Microsoft Exchange Server and Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 R2.

While companies can use these solutions on their own, Caldera believes the technology really shines when it is incorporated with business applications users rely on to do their jobs.

He points to Dassault Systemes , a provider of collaborative product life-cycle (PLM) software and services. The company created a PLM solution for its customer, Dassault Aviation , which was designed to improve the efficiency of its maintenance operations. It integrated Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2005 with Dassault Systemes' ENOVIA 3D Live software so people throughout the organization could quickly find colleagues and communicate using instant messaging while looking at the same 3D view of a part or component.

Another company doing something similar is Schlumberger Information Solutions , which develops software for the oil & gas industry. The company is building collaboration capabilities into its flagship product, Petrel, a seismic-to-simulation software system designed to increase reservoir performance. It is used by geophysicists, geologists, and reservoir engineers who often need to collaborate with one another.

"[Schlumberger] integrated instant messaging, presence, voice-over IP—all of these unified communications capabilities—on the Microsoft platform inside that business application," says Caldera. "So if you're a user of Petrel, you are now [empowered] with all of these unified communications workflows or tools within your business application, within what you know, and what you use every day."

The Petrel unified communications initiative is in the early proof-of-concept stage. It was built using the latest release of Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007—a key component of Microsoft's unified communications strategy.

Released for general availability early in February, Office Communications Server 2007 R2 includes new features that facilitate these actions:

  • Increase communication capabilities for remote and mobile workers;

  • Enable audio conferencing; and

  • Give developers more tools to integrate unified communications with business processes.

Semiconductor manufacturer Intel , which deployed the previous version of Office Communications Server 2007 a couple of years ago, has been testing the latest release. Intel believes the new version will help the company reduce audio conferencing costs by 20 percent or more.

Cost savings are what manufacturers are interested in when they consider investing in collaborative tools, particularly in today's recessionary economy. Concludes Bill Gerould, Microsoft senior director of marketing, worldwide manufacturing, "It's one area we see manufacturers willing to invest in."

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