Analysis: Microsoft and Nortel - New name, same old idea

The new deal on unified messaging gives Microsoft and Nortel hope that the Innovative Communications Alliance will boost revenues

Microsoft and Nortel have announced a partnership, the Innovative Communications Alliance (ICA), designed to engage the two companies at the technology, marketing and business levels with the aim of promoting a shared vision of unified communications.

A grand title, and a fairly clear concept which Jeff Raikes, president of the Microsoft Business Division, defines as "convergence of all forms of business communications into a single, intelligent and intuitive experience."

In layman's terms that means enabling people to communicate with each other in any form they like - by phone, e-mail, fax, instant messaging, whatever -without having to use separate specialist tools. It also means being able to share and re-use those communications. To automatically convert faxes to e-mail and vice-versa, manage voicemail from your e-mail client and so on. All features, unsurprisingly, that Microsoft has been building into its Exchange and Outlook products of late.

However, it's not exactly a new concept. Under the guise of unified messaging Microsoft and others have been shepherding customers towards this kind of communication convergence for a number of years, with a distinct lack of success.

Most of us cling doggedly to our phones for voice and text messaging, use fax machines to send faxes and log into the company PBX to pick up voice mail. We even use different e-mail tools, preferring PCs in the office and Blackberries or smartphones when on the move.

The big difference this time round is the growing interest in Voice over IP (VoiP). An area of technology to which Microsoft has, hitherto, paid scant attention but where Nortel is seen as a market leader. Combine the two and add the fact that Nortel is equally committed to the concept of convergence and perhaps, just perhaps, it might work.

Indeed Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer, believes the communications industry is at an "inflection point" and that customers of all sizes will be able to realize tremendous economic and business benefits from the unified communications products that will result from the alliance.

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