Riding a tide of desktop domination, Microsoft's latest foray into presence is expected to kickstart corporate adoption of IM. Lateness to market, however, has analysts skeptical as to how the offering will compete against those of longtime collaboration players such as IBM.
Office Live Communications Server 2003 - code-named Greenwich and previously known as Real Time Communications Server - was released to manufacturing last week.
Microsoft saw the product's delivery, slated for six to eight weeks, as a "key moment" in establishing IM as a business tool, lead product manager at Microsoft, Ed Simnett, said.
With Live Communications Server, companies will be able to run their own enterprise IM network, address security concerns related to public services, and log and manage employees' IM usage. The product is capable of determining whether a user is online and available for communication in Office applications and can extend this "presence" information to other applications such as custom portals.
Despite noting the significance of the product's upcoming release, analysts said Microsoft had some catching up to do. Market incumbent IBM has been selling Lotus Sametime - recently renamed Lotus Instant Messaging and Conferencing - for about five years.
"Sametime has been out for a number of years, giving IBM a significant leg up. I would expect to see the second version of Office Live Communications Server as a closer competitor to Sametime," president and founder of Osterman Research, Michael Osterman, said.
But with Office on nearly every business user's PC, Microsoft had a considerable market advantage, research director at Gartner, Maurene Caplan Grey, said.
"What Live Communications Server has that nobody else has ... is integration with Office and SharePoint," Caplan Grey said.
SharePoint is Microsoft's file-sharing and team-collaboration product.
Providing IM in context is one of Microsoft's goals. Until now, Microsoft has struggled in finding a home for its IM product, placing it first in Exchange and then toying with making it part of Windows. The company finally settled on Office as the right place.
"The Exchange IM product was not really ready for prime time," research manager at IDC, Robert Mahowald, said. "Live Communications Server is a much more fully baked idea and part of a long-term road map for their collaboration products,"
Still, IBM's product has "four distinct advantages" over Microsoft's, according to Mahowald.
Sametime has a lower overall price, includes Web conferencing, has no need for an additional server, and offers modular configuration, he said.
Office Live Communications Server will quickly establish a broad user base. Exchange 2000 IM users who bought upgrade rights will get the product at no extra charge. Also, loyal Microsoft customers who already use Active Directory, SQL Server, and Windows Server 2003 and those who plan to use Office 2003 will likely take the bait, analysts said.
With its muscular installed base, Microsoft may be the spark plug for enterprise IM adoption, according to analysts.
"Organisations that are fully engaged in the Microsoft environment have been waiting for Microsoft to get into the IM and collaboration game," Gartner's Caplan Grey said.
IDC's Mahowald agreed but pointed out that only somewhat cutting-edge enterprises would be able to adopt it at first.
"Office Live Communications Server is definitely not for everybody," Mahowald said. "You have to do some fairly significant upgrades in order to use this thing out of the gate."