On March 26, Microsoft announced the release of the public beta of Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007, the latest version of Microsoft's real-time communications platform. Communications Server 2007 includes great improvements in the presence and IM features over what Live Communications Server 2005 offered, plus some major new chunks of functionality that help make Communications Server 2007 a key part of Microsoft's unified communications strategy.

The business value of real-time communications is obvious to anyone who's even casually used commercial IM systems. However, Communications Server 2007 is much more than basic text IM. Live Communications Server 2005 offered text IM along with voice and video conferencing, but Communications Server 2007, in conjunction with Microsoft Office Communicator 2007, can do a lot more.

Let's start with IM because that's a common business requirement. Not only can you do two-person and multiparty text IM, but you can also log your conversations to a Microsoft Office Outlook 2007 folder. You can take notes during a conversation and send them directly to Microsoft Office OneNote 2007; this is a terrific feature because it lets you preserve the context of the conversation and keep searchable, indexed notes (complete with audio, digital ink, and all the other data types that OneNote 2007 supports). Communications Server 2007 supports single and multiparty voice and video, too, provided you have compatible audio and video hardware on your laptops.

Communications Server 2007 improves on Live Communication Server 2005's VoIP support, too. Communicator 2007 can act as a VoIP endpoint, so you can make calls to and receive calls from other Communicator users, other phones in your organization, and phones anywhere in the world (depending on how you set up Communications Server 2007 gateways to interconnect with the phone system.) Communicator 2007 also supports a call-deflection feature that lets you reroute incoming calls to another number. For example, say you get a call just as you're about to step out of your office. Click the call notification's Redirect button and you can transfer the call to your cell phone; the caller never even knows the transfer has taken place. You can also deflect incoming calls directly to voicemail, a handy way to avoid being interrupted by noncritical calls.

Speaking of voicemail: You can easily configure Exchange Server 2007 so that when a Communicator user gets a call and it's not answered, it goes to his or her Exchange 2007 unified messaging (UM) mailbox. This provides a nifty way to integrate Communicator users with "regular" phone users.

Presence display and control is also much improved. A new "inactive" presence status fills the gap between "away" and "active"; you can set a time limit for the transition from "active" to "away." You can also customize the set of presence states that people can choose from. For example, you could create a new status called "en route" for field service technicians to use when they're away from the computer but reachable via cell phone.

Users can control which details other users can see. For example, I can give my boss full access to my presence and calendar data, allow my team to see my presence and free/busy data, and let the rest of my company see only my presence status. Because Communications Server 2007 now supports groups for IM, you can easily send broadcast messages to many users at once—a handy feature.

It's hard to get the full flavor of how cool—and useful—this integration is until you try it. Microsoft has been demonstrating some extremely impressive hardware, such as the very slick Microsoft RoundTable conferencing camera, as well as devices that add Communicator functionality directly into the telephone interface. Microsoft and its partners haven't released many details about when these devices will be available or what they'll cost, but I suspect they'll be in high demand once word gets out about their functionality.

I'll write about how to set up Communications Server 2007 to work with Exchange 2007 UM in a future column. In the meantime, I'll be demonstrating Communications Server 2007, Communicator 2007, and Exchange 2007 UM at the Microsoft Unified Communications: Featuring Exchange Server 2007 Roadshow events. For details or to register for the event, click here.