Last week, I talked about Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 server roles, and I promised to write this week about the best way to get ready for Exchange 2007. But instead, I'm writing on a different topic. First let me point out something very cool: This week, Microsoft made available the entire online Help system for Exchange 2007. That means that you can easily read the product documentation before Beta 2 ships, so you can start researching the topics that are of greatest interest to you. Check it out at the URL below. http://www.microsoft.com/technet/prodtechnol/exchange/E2k7Help/

On Monday, June 26th, Microsoft held a Unified Communications Group Strategy Day in San Francisco. I didn't go to the event; instead, I watched the video stream courtesy of Microsoft Office Live Meeting 2003. In this set of presentations, Microsoft started talking about the next wave of real-time communications products and how they tie in to Microsoft's overall vision of unifying communications.

Jeff Raikes, president of Microsoft's Business Division, was the keynote speaker. Raikes presented a short demo of a very cool new product called Microsoft Office RoundTable, which should be available "about a year from now." Roundtable is a hardware device: a 360-degree camera that works with Live Meeting to give you panoramic video and automatic speaker detection. You plug it in to a PC in your conference room, and it sends audio and video to the Live Meeting server for distribution. You see a panoramic view of the faces of all attendees, plus you see the face of whoever's talking at the moment. If the software for this device works well, this product could be very valuable for distributed teams. RoundTable is a great example of how Microsoft Research often develops prototypes that are used internally before being turned into products.

Next, Raikes talked about Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) being the core protocol for Microsoft's communications system. Microsoft is positioning 2007 Microsoft Office System as a platform for delivering services in key areas, including presence and mobility enablement. Raikes went on to announce three new product versions. - Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, which combines SIP-based IM (with voice, video, application, and data sharing) with a self-hosted conferencing server. This product is a terrific answer to critics who have complained that Live Meeting is available only as a service. Lots of customers want hosted conferencing servers, but not everyone does. - Microsoft Office Communicator 2007, which now includes a SIP "softphone" so you can use the VoIP features of Communications Server and Communicator 2007 without any additional hardware. Communicator 2007 and Communications Server 2007 also work together to provide multiparty audio and video conferencing, which Live Communications Server 2003 can't do without using third-party products. - A new version of Microsoft Office Live Meeting that lets you use both Public Switched Telephone Network and IP audio, plus Windows Media Video and Flash embedding. The demo featured a Live Meeting session in which a video was played back--a useful feature. Live Meeting includes presence-status indicators, and it provides "talking head" video of the presenter.

Raikes was joined on stage by Anoop Gupta, corporate vice president of the Unified Communications Group, for a demo of the new suite of products. The demo showcased the high degree of integration between Communicator 2007, Communications Server 2007, and 2007 Office System applications. For example, when you start an IM session from within Microsoft Outlook, the IM window reflects the subject of the email message. The point behind this demo was to show how easy it is to move seamlessly between audio, text, and video conferencing (and application sharing) without switching applications or work contexts. Video conversations even include a small inset window that shows what you look like. The 2007 products support multiparty, multipoint audio and video, something missing from the 2005 versions.

One part of the demo showed a voice-driven session with the Microsoft Help desk conducted through Communicator 2007: A manager called in and automatically provisioned a new user. Microsoft's positioning of its communications product as a platform unlocks a wide range of potential business applications. Microsoft SharePoint already puts a heavy emphasis on self-service provisioning, one of its most popular features; it's good to see this possibility expanded to other areas.

There were a few surprises. For example, Raikes announced that Live Meeting will integrate with Microsoft Exchange Hosted Services' archiving component to provide long-term archiving of meeting data. This is a smart move because compliance is one of the key drivers that make people want self-hosted conferencing services.

Perhaps the biggest surprise (at least to me) was the announcement that LG-Nortel, Polycom, and Thomson have all committed to building hardware SIP phones that include the new "Communicator phone experience." This is an awkward term for something very cool: You see a UI on your desktop phone that looks and acts like the desktop, mobile, and browser-based Communicator interfaces. For example, your phone can show your Communications Server contact list (including your MSN, Yahoo!, and AOL Instant Messenger contacts if you're using the Live Communications Server 2005 Public IM Connectivity service.)

What do these announcements and new products mean for Exchange? Because the Office Communications Server product family won't ship until next year, there's no immediate impact, but it should be clear that Microsoft is focusing on tying together conventional messaging data (such as email, calendaring, and contacts), telephony, presence information, and communications services. If you're considering deploying Exchange Unified Messaging, you'll probably want to ensure that the PBX hardware you select will work with Live Communications Server now, even if you don't plan to start using Live Communications Server until the 2007 product wave hits. In the meantime, some smart folks have been working hard to make Live Communications Server 2005 work with the popular Asterisk open-source PBX--more on that next week.