There is no single product that has the potential to disrupt the IP PBX marketplace more than Microsoft’s OCS. The closest analogy is when Cisco got into voice around 2000 – they were a powerful company without a voice offering and decided to use their strong presence and cash reserves to leverage the disruptive opportunity of VoIP with a new successful product line. Cisco has done very well with their products, and they played fair.
The competitive landscape was mostly digital phones and Cisco took on the mission (along with Vonage) of explaining to the world why VoIP was a better architecture. The technology was revolutionary, but the implementation was evolutionary. They offered phones, voice mail systems, T1/PRI hardware, advanced applications – basically same bun, different burger.
Close to ten years later Microsoft enters the scene, but there is no timely disruptive technology to exploit. So instead, Microsoft is making progress by redefining the problem and solution. Microsoft positions OCS as a totally new paradigm. They believe the desktop computer, not the phone, is the heart of a communications system, they believe it’s time to dump all the T`1/PRI lines for SIP trunks. They believe messaging shouldn’t be unified (where voice mail and email servers share information), but rather consolidated into a single Exchange solution. And they question the very need of phones in a phone solution.
The reality is that SIP, soft phones, presence, and unified messaging are commonly offered as options with almost all solutions. Microsoft’s truly unique piece is how they leverage their desktop market share with an integrated desktop VoIP proposition. Their vision is also a strength based on its clarity, not so common in this industry. OCS is being rapidly adopted as a presence server, but its voice capabilities are being embraced slower. Phone systems don’t sell as quickly as IT servers – but there are takers.
Aspect caught my attention with some impressive ROIs announced with their OCS implementation. I was curious if their ROI was based on hard or soft savings and met with Jamie Ryan their CIO. That resulted with a post over at UCStrategies: Hook, Line and Call Center, Aspect swallows it all. Aspect bought into it; all of it. They bought into the presence part and the voice parts for their worldwide locations. They are also rapidly integrating OCS into their products and services that they offer. Microsoft really could not ask more from a customer, but they did anyway. Microsoft asked for an equity stake – probably using the great minds think alike proof.
Regardless of where you stand on OCS, Aspect deserves praise and respect for not only taking such a bold initiative with their OCS deployment, but for doing anything. So many customers are sitting on the economic sidelines. Get out and do something.
One thought I had while writing that story was the notion of the safe bet right now in UC or telecom. I have never seen so many things in play in this industry before. The PBX makers are rapidly working on embracing the desktop (and OCS). Skype and Google have very strong desktop/presence components are ramping up their voice capabilities with totally different perspectives. There are cloud based and hosted complete solutions and an emerging sector of hosted API tools. Companies that have hardware among their greatest strength are rushing to be software only companies. The expanding adoption of SIP support is turning the carrier and phone market on its side. Our love affairs with our cell phones are permanently changing the telecom equation, and throw in SMS, IM, Email, and Twitter and the concept of defining complements versus competitors gets even more blurred.
No one ever got fired for buying IBM (in the 70s) and that became Microsoft in the 90s. But I am not sure who the safe bet is now. The fact is telecom and IT folk like innovation, but like safety too. We push out competitors and like to keep our choices simple. We pushed out Novell, OS2, Token Ring, and so many others keeping the mainstream tech list short and manageable. Though I am not so sure that model applies in telecom.
Today, over at NoJitter.com there is a piece that looks at OCS as a safe choice (or not). The problem is with so much changing in telecom/UC right now, I am not sure what a safe choice looks like any more. Just before it declared bankruptcy, Nortel looked like a safe choice to most. Between CEBT, Google, Skype, Cloud computing, hosted solutions, and good ol Asterisk – the safe choice becomes quite personal. Which risks do wish to minimize? OCS could be a safe choice based on many criteria, but not by the virtue alone that it is from Microsoft.
Then this is this post about OCS. A few more dangling particples about the OCS solution that didn’t fit in with the others.
The OCS solution is a bit young. Its first version was positioned around presence and had some limited PBX integration partners. That product was called Live Communications Server of LCS. Microsoft’s live franchise isn’t as powerful as their Office Franchise, so version two was renamed Office Communications Server R2. It was the first offering positioned as a PBX alternative. The product is still very young – all young products suffer from a chicken and egg syndrome to some degree. In this case, it is around hardware. Microsoft doesn’t make phones, but Polycom does. Polycom introduced the CX line of phones specifically for this market (these phones do not appear to be made by Polycom) (remember Microsoft isn’t even sure you need phones). But Polycom (or Microsoft) forgot conference saucers. A strange thing to forget really, particularly since Polycom has done so well with speaker phones. Now Microsoft announced a new relationship with HP, which will bring more phones. Will SIP phones replace all PBX phones? It is a shame that the SIP phone solutions such as Microsoft’s and Digium’s are not the same.
A current hole in the OCS line is integration with cell phones. Avaya and Mitel and several others offer cell phone integration AND OCS integration. This means when a user receives a call on their cell phone, their OCS status can change to “In a Call” and the user can send the call back to their corporate phone (reducing minute charges) fairly simply. I have no doubt that Microsoft will be adding these features to OCS soon, but they aren’t there in R2.
OCS does presence very well, better than most alternatives because it is integrated throughout Office. Many people consider presence the killer app for voice – the next big thing. And one hand I agree, because I have seen how it does improve productivity. But I am also ready for Presence ver 2. The time saving logic of presence primarily manifests itself as: don’t call people unless they are there, or don’t call people when they are already on the phone.
When I started teleworking before my colleagues, it was great being able to see presence. Sometimes, depending on presence of others, it would determine if I would go into the office or not. I need to chat with Jack – oh good he is in today. But as others started teleworking, I found myself driving to the office only to discover Jack was at home teleworking. I think presence with location could be even more helpful, but many prefer the anonymity of online rather than online at home. The green dot really only tells me Jack is at a computer. This is great for IM, but not all that helpful for voice. There are lots of times where Jack is at his computer, but not available for a call. And lots of times where Jack is not at his computer (driving) when he is available for a call. I find myself more and more ignoring presence information. There has to be a better solution. IM taught us how powerful presence can be, but we really have not evolved it yet to telecom.
OCS also changes status based on the Outlook calendar. “Available” turns into “In a meeting” even if my calendar states “stay in office for calls”. Yes, there are ways to override this, but that adds complexity. I used to have this feature with Esna’s voice mail product – it could actually put your phone in Do Not Disturb every time you have an appointment. Problem is sometimes those are phone appointments and now they can’t call. I love automation and I believe we are eventually going to get there.
What I really like about OCS/IM is that it can integrate with external systems such as AIM. Most of the vendors are creating their own IM solutions or islands. The term is “network externality” – it means the value of things increase the more people have them. One fax machine in the world is useless, each new fax machine purchased increases the value ever so slightly of my fax machine. The vast majority of the PBX makers are offering some form of internal IM; Microsoft was right on with their federation angle and public gateway solution.
When VoIP entered the PBX scene, it was considered a disruptive technology. We all braced ourselves for rapid change and it came. But that was just the preview, the real show is about to t begin.