Microsoft Unified Communications: part 2 (unlocking the potential for new communications experiences)

Last week I spent some time at Microsoft in one of James O’Neill‘s presentations on the Microsoft View of Unified Communications.

In the first post in this series from James’ presentation, I outlined the business need for unified communications and some of the Microsoft technologies that can be used to address those requirements. This post looks at some more of the benefits, as communications experiences are adapted to match modern working practises.

The first goal of unified communications: whenever I see a name, I also see presence

We communicate with people, not addresses, yet it doesn’t seem strange to us to dial a network address (a phone number) to speak to someone. Obviously, that’s because telephony has a long history, but it seems pretty odd today – after all, when did you last e-mail someone by IP address? That’s where directories come into play – just as on a mobile phone we tend to store contacts by name, in a corporate environment we should be able to contact our colleagues (or federated contacts) using Active Directory (possibly integrated with other directory systems – such as the internal telephone system).

Having found the right contact, we have a huge choice of media for communications, and the most appropriate medium may vary according to a number of factors:

  • Would you phone someone you know is out? Possibly – but you’d probably call their mobile phone.
  • Would an IM chat save a long e-mail exchange? This one is a little more tenuous – I often find that I’ve spent 20 minutes on IM when a 2 minute phone call would have sufficed.
  • Do you ever ask “is this a good time for a call”? Almost always!

The choice of medium is driven by presence – and when we have presence information, we can use it to make a decision.

After all, how would you connect of the person was:

  • On holiday for a week?
  • In a meeting for the next 30 minutes?
  • Around but not at their PC?
  • At their PC but with a do not disturb sign?
  • Available?

Technologies like the Office Communicator client can even set levels of permission (e.g. personal contacts may be able to override do not disturb status, certain contacts may be able to view home phone numbers but not everyone, etc.) and Office applications can also show presence through smart tags which include a “jellybean” presence icon.

The second goal of unified communications: where I see presence, I should be able to start a conversation (in the right medium)

Once I have a contact’s presence information, I can choose an appropriate form of communication. Should I contact them on a 1:1 basis or multi-party? Should I use voice, video, a data conference, instant messaging or e-mail? Then, using unified communication technologies I can let the computer place the call so that it may be routed according to my contact’s working hours, availability (presence), or other rules – possibly even allowing call forking so that two or more devices ring simultaneously and the first to be answered takes the call.

Using unified communications products a conversation can even switch modes mid-communication, for example:

(Instant message) “Are you free for a call?”
(Instant message) “Yes, but I’m travelling right now!”
(Click to call – and the call is routed to the contact’s mobile phone based on their working hours)
(Communicator-mobile voice call) The conversation continues until… “I’m in the office now, let’s transfer this to my desk phone.”
(Transfer call)
(Communicator-communicator voice call) The conversation continues until some expert advice is needed “Let’s bring Dave into the call – he’s the expert in this area.”
(Click to invite others)
(Multi-party voice call) “But what if I show you this diagram”
(Click to start Live Meeting)
(Conferencing) Each party can see a shared desktop, etc.

This example shows that the rich functionality provided by the various unified communications technologies allows for new conferencing experiences. Add in devices like the Office RoundTable and the whole feeling of a conference call changes (I’ve lost count of the number of times when I’ve tuned out of a voice conference because I’d lost track of who was talking or couldn’t hear them properly on a conference phone) – and meeting content can be recorded and stored for subsequent playback. Then there is Unified Messaging in Exchange Server, allowing voice-mails to be stored with notes in the recipient’s Inbox as well as voice access to have e-mails read over a voice call, to move calendar appointments, to access the directory and call contacts, etc.

That’s just the unified communications part – but why should web applications be restricted to e-mail and web addresses to provide contact details? tel: URIs can extend contact to voice calls, and can integrate with directory systems that use the E.164 standard for number formatting.

Incorrectly formatted phone number on Microsoft's websiteSadly, I know of at least one large IT services company that mandates the +44 (0) xxxxxxxxxx format for its directory updates (which is confusing to computers, as they will dial the +44 and the 0, rather than substituting one for the other) and even Microsoft’s own contact pages have an incorrect number which not only includes the UK (44) code in front of a full 11-digit number (including the 0 – which won’t work) but prefixes that with (011) which is the US international dialling code but is by no means universal (it’s 00 in the UK, and 0011 in Australia – hence the standardisation on the + symbol).

LG-Nortel IP8540 (Tanjay) deviceThe unified communications experience need not be limited to software either. Whilst Microsoft claim that the desk phone reached an evolutionary dead end some years back (Cisco, Siemens, et al. may disagree), they have also partnered with LG-Nortel, and Polycom to produce IP and USB phones to integrate with Microsoft unified communications software. Codenamed Tanjay and Catalina respectively, these devices either include an Office Communicator client with a touch screen and a fingerprint reader for authentication or extend the Office Communicator desktop experience to include a handset.

Hopefully, this post has helped to illustrate some of the new ways of working that incorporating unified communications technologies into the infrastructure can facilitate. In the next post in this series, I’ll move past the theory and benefits of unified communications and start to look at implementing the technology.

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