Microsoft officially launched Office Communications Server 2007 R2 this week, but it wasn't the traditional large Microsoft launch event with lots of curious attendees and reporters packed into a convention center somewhere. Instead, this event was located in an online virtual conference venue (built with Microsoft Silverlight, of course) in which the keynote address and breakout sessions were broadcast. For a product that promises to improve communications and reduce the need for business-related travel, a virtual launch makes perfect sense, and the site itself is nicely put together.

Enough about the site—what's the deal with OCS 2007 R2?

Microsoft has a history of using the "R2" suffix to denote a product version that's a significant improvement over the previous version but not major enough in scope to warrant an entirely new name. For example, Windows Server 2003 R2 added several directory, management, and security capabilities to the base Windows Server 2003 platform, but it wasn't a wholesale overhaul of the product. In the same vein, OCS 2007 R2 is essentially an improved version of OCS 2007, not an entirely new product.

Unlike Windows Server 2003 R2, however, OCS 2007 R2 isn't an add-on product that you install in an existing deployment; it's a new product that has to be deployed as a new installation. The reason for that is the same as what created such turmoil with the announcement of Microsoft Exchange Server 2007: OCS 2007 R2 is a 64-bit-only product and can't be upgraded in place on existing OCS 2007 computers because OCS 2007 was available only for 32-bit machines. Interestingly, I haven't heard any complaints about this situation the way I did for Exchange 2007. I suspect people have become accustomed to the idea of 64-bit deployments and that initial shock factor has worn off.

OCS 2007 R2 includes several interesting features, but the one I'm going to focus on at the moment is the new group chat functionality. Microsoft got this technology when it bought Parlano in 2007, but it's making its Microsoft debut as a new communications mode in R2. The reason I'm focusing on it is because it offers an intriguing possibility: replacing some Exchange public folder functionality.

Public folders, of course, are still fully supported in Exchange 2007, and Microsoft announced that they will be fully supported in Exchange 14. However, when you look at what public folders are commonly used for, you can see that SharePoint is bidding to take many of those functions over: Workflow processing, document storage and retention, and shared calendars are all implemented in SharePoint at present, as are discussions. Group chat, though, offers a better alternative for discussions than public folders and SharePoint-based discussions. The chat client preserves the real-time nature of interaction while still letting participants drop in and out of conversations; unlike multiparty instant messaging conversations, group chat sessions are persistent—that is, chat logs remain available even when there's no one participating.

A drawback to the group chat implementation in OCS 2007 R2 is that it requires a separate client. To really reach its potential, group chat needs to be accessible through the other clients that Microsoft already has for asynchronous and synchronous communications—namely, Outlook and Office Communicator. There are many potential ways to perform this integration, and no doubt this feature's already under development either at Microsoft or at one of the many ISVs that are building on the OCS platform.

Existing OCS 2007 customers who purchased the product under Software Assurance get no-cost upgrades, but for everyone else, R2 server and CAL pricing is unchanged from the original OCS. For more coverage of the OCS 2007 R2 launch, see "Microsoft OCS 2007 R2 Launch Stresses Economic Benefits of Unified Communications."