Microsoft is developing a new front-end application for its upcoming Live Communications Server (LCS) 2005 instant messaging (IM) server that links LCS 2005 with end users' telephones.
That way, the new application, code-named Istanbul, adds another way for reaching LCS users, on top of existing avenues such as instant messaging and voice and video.
"This is a big change. For the first time, end users will be able to think of their enterprise PBX phone as part of the overall real-time collaboration infrastructure," said Ed Simnett, lead product manager at Microsoft for Istanbul. Istanbul can also be configured to dial cell phones and lines outside of a company's internal switchboard, he said. "Any phone becomes an addressable end point to LCS."
Istanbul, scheduled to ship before the end of June 2005, will be the preferred front end to LCS 2005, which Microsoft plans to ship before the end of this year.
The front end to LCS 2003, the server's current version, is Windows Messenger. Istanbul isn't designed for LCS 2003, and while Microsoft will continue to support Windows Messenger, it's unlikely there will be a 6.0 version of the product, Simnett said.
Another improvement in Istanbul is a deeper integration with the Microsoft Office product family, so that, for example, an Exchange user's out-of-office message will show up not only when someone sends him an e-mail but also when someone tries to reach him via LCS 2005. Istanbul also features improved audio and video capabilities, such as a larger video screen.
"This is a major effort on Microsoft's behalf to merge the idea of real-time computer communication and real-time phone communication. The primary benefit of this is tying instant-messaging type clients to the PBX infrastructure that most big firms already have," said Nate Root, an analyst with Forrester Research.
Still, in the near future, Microsoft will face a challenge to promote Istanbul's adoption because there isn't a lot of demand yet among enterprise users for this type of functionality, Root said. "Istanbul is a solution for a problem most users and companies don't know they have. This is true of any radically new communications paradigm," he said.
Users are comfortable with the phone and with instant messaging as workplace communications tools, but getting them to embrace Istanbul as a central, integrated tool for managing phone, IM and other communications tools will take some convincing, Root said. "The first and biggest hurdle it's got to get over is cultural: convincing people that this is a new and better tool to make their lives easier, and that they should take a look at it and give it a try," he said.
However, in the long run, Istanbul and tools like it will be seen as necessities in workplaces, so Microsoft is making a smart move in developing Istanbul early in the game, Root said. In five or six years, the concept of having one front-end application with links to a user's phone, PDA (personal digital assistant), PC, instant messaging, Web conferencing and so forth will not be foreign in enterprises, he said.
"When we get to the point where there's an IM dial tone, where IM is standardized like the phone system or the e-mail system, then we've got a whole new interesting set of problems: you have an e-mail channel, an IM channel, a phone channel and all these things are standardized in their own world but they don't talk to each other and that's an unnecessary burden on users," he said. "Microsoft is saying: In the long term we're going to have to solve these problems, so let's put out this Istanbul client as an early version of what communications may look like five years from now."
A key next step for Microsoft to make the Istanbul concept successful is to continue to partner aggressively to extend the product's functionality, said Paul Ritter, an analyst at Wainhouse Research, in Boston. Likewise, it will be in the best interest of potential partners to seek a place in the Istanbul/LCS universe, he said. Partners need to understand where they need to be in the enterprise communications picture when all is said and done, because "everything is heading to a completely unified platform," Ritter said.
Microsoft made this announcement on Tuesday at the Fall 2004 VON Conference and Expo in Boston.