Traditional networking and voice integrators are skilling up in Microsoft's new unified communications suite to make a play for the applications-based communications space.
Microsoft launched its unified communications (UC) platform last week. New products include Microsoft's Office Communications Server 2007, Office Communicator 2007, Microsoft Office Live Meeting, and Microsoft RoundTable. The vendor also released an updated service pack for Exchange Server 2007.
3D Networks CEO, Chris Luxford, said IP telephony was increasingly becoming a software game. The Melbourne based voice and network integrator has spent the past six months getting its Microsoft skills in order. It also supports technology from Nortel, Cisco, Advatel and Ericsson.
"At the end of the day, it's going to be a solutions play no matter which way you look at it," Luxford said. "Telephony is moving towards the software world - even Nortel, Avaya, and other network infrastructure vendors are moving towards more software-based models. "Software hinges the unified communications concept together and your ability to do deep integration and deliver multiple configurations.
"For us, it's about adopting software-based solutions and moving from systems integration into applications integration. This is our strategy and it's a major shift in the marketplace."
NSC Group is also partnering directly with Microsoft for the first time. The integrator recently completed a national roadshow with the software giant to tout desktop collaboration to existing and potential customers.
Managing director, Craig Neil, predicted Microsoft would be a strong player in IP telephony within the next few years. He cited new opportunities bundling Microsoft's desktop platforms with its Avaya products.
"Voice is more in tune with business than the IT data infrastructure these days - as voice evolves, it's becoming more of a business decision. That's where Microsoft's strength lies. I think in five years' time, Microsoft will be near the top [for UC]," Neil said.
Microsoft director of unified communications, Oscar Trimboli, said 23 Australian partners had certified under its UC competency since its launch in July. While 80 per cent were applications-style organisations, it was increasingly engaging those with a networking infrastructure heritage.
"Three years ago, the majority of our partners were classic certified Microsoft partners. In the last 18 months, we have had networking stalwarts like 3D, Integ, NSC and BTAS all came over from the traditional voice space," he said. "Many already have application and infrastructure skills in their business around things like call centre solutions, so it's not a big stretch in terms of their internal resources.
"We're not only seeing convergence across technology, but also in the channel."
Trimboli said one of the biggest struggles for voice integrators was getting customers to recognise them as viable applications providers.
"They're doing more work to change that perception with their customers. All of them are approaching it differently, but they have the same goal - to provide voice and data to their customers as voice hardware becomes more commoditised," he said.
"The future is how voice and data work together. It's not about looking at the voice business today, but looking at customer demand around integrating processes with voice. That's what partners need to start thinking about." UXC subsidiary, Integ, started in voice services before branching into networking and security.
CEO, Ian Poole, said most of its voice customers ran Alcatel-Lucent equipment.
"The reason why we've looked seriously at Microsoft is because of our role not only as a provider of solutions and integration services, but also as an advisor," he said. "When a major UC platform like Microsoft's comes out, clients want information around that and how it can work with their infrastructure. We need to be able to advise and integrate solutions."
Poole said Microsoft's push into UC was a good thing for the channel because it would drive customer interest in the technology.
"The thing channel partners need to be careful of is making sure they play in a space where they know they can compete," he said.
3D's Luxford said integrators could no longer afford to have a pure voice or data focus.
"No organisation like ours can specialise in one area anymore. You can't rollout voice without data skills, or voice without understanding the operating system and applications," he said. "As technology evolves, we are being forced to be less of a specialist and more generalist, which has challenges in terms of skilling up staff."
To help partners get on the UC bandwagon, Microsoft has begun offering access to specialist solution sales and re-engineering skills from third-party provider, Carpe Diem. The program, which is being piloted, will be available to select partners investing in training staff and devising business plans around UC, Trimboli said.
In August, Microsoft also launched a marketing development fund for UC partners.
"We're spending a lot of time not just on the technical side, but also on sales skills," Trimboli said. "It's about taking a transition approach."