Microsoft’s (Beta!) VoIP Device Blitz

You can’t buy them yet, but if you are an enterprise IT exec who is kicking the tires on IP telephony offerings you might at least want to take a gander at the wide range of Microsoft-centric IP voice devices — phones, headsets, videocam monitors — being informally unveiled Monday at the Windows Hardware Engineering conference in Los Angeles.

ipdevice_low.jpgAll meant to work with the still-in-beta Office Communications Server software from Redmond, the VoIP device blitz from nine different vendors is Microsoft’s latest attempt to break into the corporate Voice over IP market, against established players like Avaya and Cisco.

While the devices — shown last week in pre-WinHEC press briefings in San Francisco — performed impressively in an all-Microsoft environment, many big questions remain, such as:

1) OCS still isn’t available, nor is pricing information;

2) Much of the functionality shown is already available from competitors; and

3) do you really want to trust your phone system to Microsoft software?

Despite our traditional skepticism of Microsoft’s commitment to communications, we should start out here by saying that the demo of phone systems cobbled together in a SF hotel basement last week all performed as planned, without any of the also traditional Microsoft demo glitches. VoIP phones rang crisp and clear, triggering on-screen synergy with Office Communicator, updating presence-based information for other Microsoft-based clients, etc., etc.

Impressive as it was for a Microsoft VoIP display, there wasn’t anything shown — customizable presence info, IM-to-voice-to-video call escalation — that isn’t already available from other IP players or even free offerings like Skype or Gizmo. So what’s the fuss?

For starters, the participation of tested device players — like Polycom, Plantronics, Samsung and LG/Nortel — shows that Microsoft has the pull to draw in trusted suppliers whose gear IT execs have likely already signed PO’s for. And by committing to a standards (SIP) based platform, Microsoft hopes to drive economies of scale to eventually sell itself as the low-priced alternative to Cisco’s Cadillac-priced offerings in the IP voice arena. (Again, no pricing yet from Microsoft. Trust them at your own peril.)

earbud_low.jpgCertainly, toys like the USB Bluetooth headset (which Microsoft says will dual-home to VoIP and cellphones, a pledge that couldn’t be proven in the demo) from LG-Nortel will serve as momentary VoIP-candy, but there’s still a long road ahead of Microsoft in its attempts to A) convince enterprise IT that it’s serious about telephony and B) overcome products already in the market from playahs like Cisco and Avaya, not to mention the burgeoning open-source offerings in the Asterisk arena.

But while it’s easy to poke holes in Microsoft’s offerings — like, say, its five pre-configured “presence” states, which seem laughable next to the on-the-fly customizable “don’t bug me” field in Google’s Gtalk — it’s important to remember that people who buy Microsoft corporate software buy in the thousands, not by single downloads.

And with a host of interested device suppliers on its side, Microsoft might not be able to ignore its commitment to telephony any longer. Now all we need is pricing and availability to let the battle really begin.