Clash of the titans

Clash of the titans

Maren Bennette

If there were just two protagonists in the fight for the unified communications market, one would be the 800-pound gorilla called Cisco and the other a big purple monster called Microsoft. Why purple? Because Microsoft owns Barney the Dinosaur! Why these two? Because they are the largest players in their respective fields and will undoubtedly fight hard for their ‘fair share’ of the market.

Cisco’s disruption of the telecommunications market is well documented. Microsoft’s foray with their suite of unified communications products including Live Communications Server 2005 (LCS) and Office Communicator 2005 (OC), hasn’t yet

been so unsettling, but will be. The software giant has partnered with nearly all the major IP communications vendors, who in turn have each announced (and in some cases, started shipping) products that integrate their offerings with the Microsoft products. Cisco is one. The others include Alcatel, Avaya, Mitel, NEC, Nortel and Siemens. It is my belief that pretty soon there will be a wrestling match between them all – one that will need an eight sided ring (which by the way, you can buy online at – only in America eh!?)

To find out more about the combatants I met with most of them, starting with Neil Laver, Head of Sales and Marketing for Microsoft’s UK Unified Communications Group. I asked him if Microsoft plans to become the dominant vendor in IP communications within the next few years. “We don’t like to use the word dominant” he replied, “but we like to be number one or two in any market we enter.” Two expressions shared with Cisco, as I know well. The similarities between the two companies are noticeable – but as any first year electromagnetics student will tell you, likes repel!

Laver went on to say “We come at this market from a different perspective from other vendors. We have 100 million users using our desktop products every day so we spend millions of dollars finding out what they want on that desktop. We apply that knowledge to our Unified Communications products.” What he didn’t say, but has been said by others, is that the PABX and networking vendors approach the market from a technology angle and thus don’t know as much about the users as they think they do.

Those vendors have differing views on Microsoft. Mitel’s Campbell Williams says “we have a very strong relationship with Microsoft and, until recently, were the only company shipping a product that allowed customers to integrate LCS with an IP communications platform. We don’t feel threatened by Microsoft at all as there will always be a need for gateways, specialised applications and a wide range of IP phones. Indeed, we welcome Microsoft’s presence in the market as it can only accelerate acceptance of IP communications. That is why we spent a lot of money developing the Live Business Gateway for the 3300 ICP.”

Nortel’s Paul Rowe said much the same whilst he demonstrated the Nortel Converged Office Solution to me. “We offer so much more than Microsoft in the way of IP communications products that we don’t feel there is an issue between us.”

Cisco’s Ian Sherring wouldn’t be drawn on the rivalry with Microsoft even when I asked why, on the day that Cisco announced integration of CallManager and LCS at VoiceCon, the conference key-note speaker, Cisco CEO John Chambers, demonstrated their new Unified Presence Server and Personal Communicator – products that compete head to head with Microsoft’s offerings. “The customer will make the choice” Sherring said. “If they choose Microsoft, so be it. If they have Cisco CallManager then our Unified Presence Server may be a better choice for them.”

So, where’s the battle? Well if you were at VoiceCon, you would have heard Eric Swift, Microsoft’s Head of Product Marketing for Unified Communications pose the question ‘Should you invest in an IP-PBX?’ To answer his own question, he flipped a slide and went on to say, in essence: I’m not going to say you shouldn’t invest in an IPPBX -but here’s what Gartner says. On the slide was a reproduction of the cover of a Gartner report authored by Bern Elliot, Steve Blood and Bob Hafner, titled, ‘The IP-PBX Is a Potential Architectural “Dead End.”’

Fighting talk from Redmond, but which vendor will win? My money is on the big purple monster from Washington State. Not only do they already own the desktop, but they also have – in the thousands of Microsoft channel partners in this country – a ready-made channel just itching to sell unified communications to their customers. In next month’s article we will tell you more about the various offerings from each of the main vendors.

Maren Bennette,
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