Microsoft, Nortel unveil ICA's first products

Microsoft's Steve Ballmer and Nortel's Mike Zafirovski introduced the first offerings of the companies unified communications deal

Microsoft and Nortel Networks top executives unveiled the first offerings from a unified communications alliance the companies launched last July.

Microsoft Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Steve Ballmer and Nortel's CEO and President Mike Zafirovski appeared Wednesday in New York to introduce the Innovative Communications Alliance (ICA) offerings, which combine technology from both companies to unify various forms of communications across a business.

Appearing on the NBC Studios soundstage of the comedy show Saturday Night Live, Ballmer joked about the vagueness of the term "unified communications." He told the audience of media, company employees, customers and analysts that "it means everything and it means nothing and it doesn't have a specific meaning to any one customer."

The best way to explain the term is to demonstrate how a single communications interface can be provided by tying communications applications that run on back-end Microsoft software -- such as e-mail, instant messaging and video-conferencing -- with Nortel telephony infrastructure, Ballmer said.

To that end, Nortel and Microsoft demonstrated how the ICA's current offering -- the Converged Office -- lets users make VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) calls, send instant messages or check other users' online presence without having to toggle between applications. The integration of Microsoft Office and Microsoft Exchange Server makes this possible. The Converged Office is available for small- to medium-size businesses, but will be available to enterprises by year's end, executives said.

The companies also showed off some forthcoming offerings that will be available this year, including:

-- UC Integrated Branch, new hardware that will be available in the fourth calendar quarter of 2007 to deploy the Converged Office unification of VOIP, e-mail, instant messaging and other communications across an enterprise's remote offices;

-- native SIP (session initiation protocol) interoperability between Nortel Communication Server 1000 and Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 that will be delivered by the second quarter of 2007. This offering also will include Nortel professional services to help companies design, deploy and support the technology;

-- a combination of the Nortel Multimedia Conferencing and Microsoft Office Communicator 2007 to allow for one client experience across applications such as e-mail, voice, instant messaging, presence and audio- and video-conferencing. This offering, which customers will use on premises, will be available in the fourth quarter of 2007.

Ballmer and Zafirovski said the offerings introduced this year and through 2009 will be part of the first phase of the ICA, the primary focus of which is to allow for an integrated desktop experience for communications across the enterprise. However, in 2010 and beyond, the companies plan to integrate all of the back-end business processes, management and administration of various forms of Web-based and telephony communication in the enterprise, Ballmer said.

"Instead of there being a separate hardware and software stack, we pull all of that together," he said. "So if people want to write business applications that have communications integrated inside, we provide the same toolset -- Visual Studio working with Exchange, Active Directory, the voice system. All of that gets integrated in the second phase."

During the executives' presentation, Johan Krebbers, group IT architect from oil and gas company Royal Dutch Shell, appeared onstage to explain how that company plans to use forthcoming ICA offerings to redesign the communications infrastructure of Shell's multinational business.

Microsoft and Nortel also unveiled Wednesday that they have opened 20 demonstration centers in North America, Europe and Asia where potential customers can see the ICA offerings in action. By the end of July, the companies plan to have in place 100 of these centers, which will be staffed by engineers from both Nortel and Microsoft.

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