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* Microsoft takes wireless telephony gamble
Posted Dec 14, 2003 - 12:19 AM
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The imminent launch of Microsoft's Live Communications Server has refocused the spotlight on the company's strategy to establish a beachhead in the enterprise telephony market on the back of the growth of wireless LANs.

Live Communications Server (formerly called Greenwich and Real Time Communications Server) will ship within weeks with a server price of around $929.

It provides an internal corporate messaging framework that will encompass instant messaging, presence-based applications, videoconferencing, email and voice, all carried over IP on wired and ( increasingly, Microsoft believes ) wireless LANs.

The product is, on the surface, a competitor to the enterprise messaging offerings from AOL and Yahoo, and as it evolves, a challenge to the similar products coming out from IBM/Lotus and Hewlett-Packard. However, it carries a weightier agenda that could bring Microsoft into conflict with some of the telephony specialists and with Cisco, as all these parties seek to maintain their position as their markets converge and become unwired.

Microsoft has made it clear in recent presentations that it believes WLAN will eventually become the primary network for the enterprise, and it is determined that its Windows servers should be the main engine for that. In a report published in August, IDC analyst Tom Valovic said Microsoft would become a 'major force in telecoms' over the next few years as enterprises moved to voice over WLAN and integrated voice/data, and would be well positioned to compete with more traditional telephony companies. But critics doubt Microsoft's ability to understand the telephone sector and think it should concentrate on strengthening Office with multimedia communications capabilities and work with the specialists rather than against them. To some extent this is already happening ? integrating IP PBX functions into Windows platforms will be important, and several PBX makers are already doing this, most importantly Siemens with its Superscape architecture. But there are fears about Windows? stability as a telephony platform, especially in the wake of recent virus attacks, and even greater fears about Microsoft gaining too much power in another sector of corporate technology.

Most dangerous for Microsoft will be Cisco, whose AVVID platform also integrates voice, data and presence within one wired/wireless infrastructure. Telecoms equipment makers such as Nortel, Siemens and Alcatel are developing similar offerings as they seek to expand out of their shrinking carrier markets into Cisco's enterprise territory. While most of these are currently working with Microsoft - Nortel has some integration of its Interactive Multimedia Server with Microsoft technologies, for instance - such friendliness will only last as long as Microsoft stays out of their voice territory.

The initial RTC Server will compete effectively with IBM and coexist comfortably with the network specialists' offerings, but its second iteration will go head to head with Cisco and the others in the WLAN and voice over WLAN arena. This is when Microsoft will lose its friends just as the real weaknesses in RTC become glaringly obvious, even in the enterprise, let alone if it tries to sell to carriers too. The experience of companies like Nortel with the carriers has made development of robust voice qualities essential in their products, and this expertise benefits them in the enterprise. RTC has several weaknesses, according to early users, compared to solutions that have come out of the telephony world ? call management, quality of service issues and doubts over fault tolerance being the most worrying.

Despite Microsoft?s attempts to break into the cellular phone market with its Windows Mobile platform, Valovic does not believe it will make similar moves into VoWLAN handsets, but will use its market weight to persuade partners to make devices based on Windows CE/Mobile. Its agenda, of course, is to ensure that users of mobile devices demand a PC-style environment, which means CE, as well as to manage the whole integrated voice/data and PC/phone system from a Windows server. A key ally is likely to be Motorola, which is not only designing Windows cellphones, but also has a venture with NEC that focuses on Wi-Fi handsets for the enterprise that will almost certainly run Windows CE.

Of course, Microsoft is not new to computer telephony. Windows has had features such as the NetMeeting videoconferencing application and Exchange Conference Server for years, but these have been seen as add-ons to the core products, not strategic in their own right. Now it has a far more ambitious roadmap and will use voice/data convergence as yet another weapon in its battle against Linux and Unix. Key to the battle is the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), the next generation protocol for voice, video and instant messaging that is becoming a de facto standard, adopted by most IP PBX makers including Alcatel, Nortel and Siemens. SIP is at the heart of Microsoft?s LCS, but in this implementation it is carried over the TCP layer in IP packets, while most SIP approaches use the User Datagram Protocol (UDP) as the transport layer. This means that only Windows Messenger clients, and others specially configured to run with Microsoft's architecture, can use a Microsoft SIP server. This illustrates the Windows giant's need to tie up this market for its own operating system, which will be a step too far for many telephony companies ? especially Cisco, which regards VoIP and, by extension, multimedia communication over wireless LANs, as its own kingdom and is just as keen to have the controlling say as Microsoft. The Redmond giant needs to tread a careful line here if it is not to be forced to take on the very companies whose friendship it needs in order to fully exploit the WLAN boom to Windows' advantage.
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