Microsoft has introduced a Web conferencing service - and although it features minor integration with the company's enterprise products, the service falls quite short of the company's plan to offer its collection of collaboration software as an integrated package.
Microsoft's Live Meeting is a re-branding of the former PlaceWare hosted Web-conferencing service that Microsoft acquired earlier this year for US$200 million.
The company said it had added 30 features to the service, highlighted by support for a native Windows client that runs on Windows 98 and above. Also new is integration with Outlook to schedule meetings and support for clustering and load balancing.
In the next six months, Microsoft plans to integrate the service with Windows Messenger, its instant-messaging client, and in the next 12 months with Live Communications Server, its IM and presence server set to ship next month along with Office 2003.
What's missing, however, is server software that corporations can run within their firewalls as part of the line-up of Microsoft's server and desktop collaboration software.
The company's collaboration strategy revolves around corporate customers and the deployment of Windows and the tactically renamed Office System of products that include IM and conferencing, and collaboration software such as Exchange, Windows SharePoint Services and SharePoint Portal Server.
"Microsoft's strategy is to sell server software," said Joe Noel, an analyst with Pacific Growth Equities, who follows the Web conferencing market. "It is a software company, not a services company."
The PlaceWare technology is not Windows-based, so Microsoft will have to transform the software for its platform. PlaceWare includes software called On-Site Solution for deployment on corporate networks, application-programming interfaces, and patented security protocols.
"We have no timetable to bring on premise-based software, but the vision is to have a server and a service," director of product management for Live Meeting, Jennifer Callison, said. "There is work to be done on things like the tools to administer and monitor Live Meeting as a server."
That work will have to get done, because Microsoft's strategy is to bring all its enterprise collaboration software together: Windows, Office, Exchange, SharePoint Portal Server, Live Communications Server and Live Meeting.
The strategy is focused on the concept of contextual collaboration, which means the real-time features are a built-in component of an application and users don't have to leave that application and open up another to do Web conferencing. For example, a user can start a conferencing session within a Word interface to collaborate on a document with other users.
Microsoft rival, IBM/Lotus, is building a similar platform using its WebSphere, Domino, instant messaging and QuickPlace technologies. IBM offers both a hosted and enterprise version of its conferencing software, and the company will release this month contextual collaboration features in the Notes 6.5 client, which includes integrated IM features from its Instant Messaging and Conferencing server.
Microsoft also will compete with conferencing vendors such as WebEx, Raindance and Centra, which welcome the competition but chide Microsoft for an incomplete offering.
"Microsoft has done two significant things," an analyst with Wainhouse Research, Andy Nilssen, said. "The first is branding. They have moved PlaceWare under Office and are clearly showing that integration with Office will happen. The second is a real native Windows client that PlaceWare had been working on."
Now, he said, Microsoft faced a set of challenges, including integrating Web conferencing into its product portfolio.
"The Fortune 5000 probably want conferencing inside the firewall for control," Nilssen said. "The same is true for the legal and healthcare industries."
He said Microsoft also faced the challenge of unseating the browser as the client of choice for Web conferencing. "Everyone has a browser, and the browser has made Web conferencing a success. Now Microsoft is saying you should use a Windows client."
Live Meeting also supports a browser client, but it will not have as rich a set of features as the native client. Live Meeting is Microsoft's second attempt at serious corporate Web conferencing software, the first being the release of Exchange Conferencing Server two years ago.
That product never really gained a foothold and is no longer being developed because the focus has switched to the PlaceWare technology.