I'm writing this from the press lounge at Microsoft's unified communications (UC) launch event in San Francisco on Tuesday, surrounded by other writers furiously pounding out stories on their keyboards (and eating chips; for some reason, the only snacks in this room are Fritos and the like). This morning, Bill Gates and Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's business division, spent an hour and a half on stage officially launching Microsoft's UC product line, including Microsoft Office Communications Server (OCS) 2007 and Microsoft Office Communicator 2007.

The keynote speech included plenty of interesting factoids. Gates pointed out that our experience and expectations of technology change every ten years or so; to illustrate this point, he showed a slide comparing the state of the art in desk phones, mobile phones, and PCs in 1977, 1987, 1997, and 2007. Over that time, Gates claimed, the key innovators have taken advantage of Moore's Law to enable new software-based scenarios; he cited mobile phones as an area where the most successful companies were successful precisely because they wrote better software for their devices. (That statement calls into question whether Gates has ever used a phone such as Motorola's RAZR, which has an awful UI--but I digress.)

It makes perfect sense, then, to think of voice telephony as just another domain that's amenable to a software-based solution, and that's precisely what OCS 2007 and its companion products are. After all, a VoIP stream isn't all that different from a stream of SMTP traffic, HTTP traffic, or any other kind of network traffic. Microsoft claims that several factors will make software-powered communications a major factor in the marketplace: - the ready availability of standardized hardware; if you already have servers running Windows, it's no big deal to repurpose a few of them (or add a blade or two) to run OCS 2007 - the huge potential cost savings that come from removing traditional telephony systems, with all their attendant maintenance and support costs - the productivity benefits delivered by UC systems, including a reduction in wasted time and improved decision-making speed - cost reductions from reducing travel and eliminating the use of outside hosted conferencing services

These features are definitely enough to pique interest in Microsoft's solutions, and Microsoft also has a secret weapon: cost. Cisco, Avaya, and other VoIP vendors tend to follow a business model that keeps their margins high; they use these margins to provide incentives to partners and system integrators. In Microsoft's model, the margins all around are lower, but they're distributed more evenly. With this model, Microsoft has already certified nearly 800 system integrators as UC specialists, and Microsoft's Ed Banti told me that a "surprising" number of those system integrators are coming from the Cisco world.

As for Exchange Server, the demos and presentations at the launch event showed Outlook Voice Access and mobile device access through Exchange ActiveSync, which you're probably already familiar with. The two big items of interest from an Exchange perspective were, first, that Microsoft is putting Exchange on a coequal footing with asynchronous communication tools, providing widespread access to email through Communicator, Communicator Web Access, and even Communicator Mobile; and second, that an increasing number of companies are deploying OCS first and then moving to Exchange 2007 unified messaging (UM). This is the reverse of what I've expected, but it turns out that many customers think it will be simpler and less disruptive to drop in a single OCS 2007 Standard Edition server to get IM, presence, and conferencing than to integrate Exchange 2007 with their PBX systems. (In related news, Ericsson, Nortel, and Mitel Networks all announced details of their software-powered PBX roadmaps today; I'll have more to say about that in a future column.) Time will tell if this migration method is right, but it's an interesting proposition.

You can view the video of the release event online or read Microsoft's press release. Also, check out what others are saying about Microsoft's UC push and the launch event: