New messaging and collaboration tools from Microsoft

I’m yet to be convinced of the business benefits of instant messaging (IM). My current employer doesn’t prohibit IM – in fact it is encouraged – I use Microsoft’s MSN Messenger service, as do many of my colleagues. I suspect the reason we that we haven’t implemented a corporate IM solution is cost.

According to IT Week, research conducted by Telewest business has found that due to security concerns only a third of UK companies allow staff access to IM. Many other companies are still deciding what their corporate messaging policy should be, but with the rising incidence of spam over IM (spim), ignorance of IM is no longer an option.

For those large enterprises that do allow IM, using the free services from Microsoft, Yahoo!, AOL and others are simply not an option (in fact they are a liability) and if IM is to become a business tool, a corporate IM infrastructure needs to be provided. For many years, Microsoft has produced a variety of chat-like products under the Exchange Server banner, but they were removed from Exchange Server 2003 and replaced with a new product – Microsoft Office Live Communications Server (LCS) 2005, which provides corporates with IM and presence capabilities.

Earlier this month, Microsoft revealed their vision for collaboration with a new product on the horizon – Microsoft Office Communicator 2005 (previously codenamed Istanbul) – supporting all of the current IM capabilities plus PC-to-phone integration and “rich presence awareness” (the ability to route calls by the most appropriate medium – fixed-line, mobile or IP voice, IM, e-mail, video or web conferencing). Microsoft will back up Office Communicator with a service pack for LCS due later this month and including enhancements such as IM spam (spim) controls, auditing (to address regulatory concerns), compatibility with Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM), HTTPS access (removing the need for VPN connections) and public IM connectivity (the ability to communicate with MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger clients). Alongside all of this, is Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2005, an upgrade to Microsoft’s web conferencing service, offering call controls for audio conference service providers and the ability to conduct live meeting sessions within Microsoft Office (in the UK this made available as a hosted service from BT, with per-minute, named user or per-seat tariffs – there is a Flash-based demonstration on the BT website).

Taken together with related initiatives, such as Exchange 12, which is expected to manage PBX-based phone messages, and the constantly increasing collaboration functionality within the Microsoft Office System, Microsoft’s efforts are wide-ranging and long-term.

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