One of the bloodiest battles going on in enterprise IT right now is in the unified communications (UC) arena. For instance, IBM announced this month that it is spend a billion dollars over the next three years on its UC strategy. And there’s no prize for guessing which Redmond-based arch-rival it has in its sights. Meanwhile, Microsoft itself is busy shoring up its own position within the market by strengthening and expanding its alliances with the likes of Nortel, Polycom and Objectworld.

But do enterprises in Europe, the Middle East and Africa really “get” unified communications? Microsoft’s Larry D. Velez thinks so. The Netherlands-based director of unified communications incubation sales in EMEA says: “Enterprises get the story right away. Unified communications has had a few years of social networking through word of mouth, mostly on the potential value it can deliver to firms. When Microsoft announced UC, the market was ripe for us, and we think we contributed to crystallising UC as valid industry term and topic for ICT organisations to think hard about.”

But Nora Freedman, senior analyst at IDC’s enterprise networks division in the States, says: “I think that the majority of corporations worldwide are fundamentally confused by unified communications. Every vendor has their own definition and every implementation is different depending on legacy equipment already installed, what vertical market they're a part of, and what business process problem that they're trying to solve. Since the primary IP telephony players are North America-based, there is more market hype and marketing dollars spent here. Siemens and Alcatel would seem to be likely candidates to drive thought-leadership in EMEA; however, they are not considered to be the most strategic vendors for unified communications.”

Mark Blowers of the UK-based Butler Group adds: “I think that most enterprises in Europe, especially larger organisations, have an understanding of unified communications and how they can benefit from its use. Although I get the feeling that it is the cost saving/productivity improvement argument rather than business process improvement aspect that is discussed.”

Opinions differ even more when it comes to the question of whether EMEA organisations fully grasp Microsoft’s own specific UC proposition with offerings such as Office Communications Server (OCS) and the Unified Messaging functions of Exchange Server 2007.

Freedman says: “It's easy for Microsoft to play on the fear of forklift upgrades, which are often required with IP telephony adoption. One of its key marketing slogans displayed here \[in the U.S.\] is: ‘VoIP as you are’. This message does resonate with some corporations, especially those that have a large installed base of Exchange products in house.

“However, this message doesn't not address the software upgrades that may be required in order to implement Microsoft UC. Most will have to upgrade to Exchange 2007 before they can install OCS 2007. Organisations also need to realise that they will still need their current PBX if they choose the MSFT path, especially during the first few versions of OCS 2007. It will take some time before Microsoft can build the telephony expertise to allow OCS to completely displace the PBX market.”

Blowers says: “Its a bit too early to tell as Microsoft only recently began offering OCS, although Microsoft and Nortel have been fairly vocal in explaining UC and their partnership. With the launch of OCS, Microsoft has also been getting its message across. I think there is a general understanding of Microsoft's positioning.”

Velez is, perhaps unsurprisingly, upbeat: “Microsoft's UC message is founded on the magic of software. With software we offer more innovation, more choice, greater cost reduction, and more productivity. Early adopters get the full message, while the mainstream is still waiting for more evidence on cost savings and business productivity gains. Microsoft is executing on a programme to find early adopters and develop the next wave of features and functions that could tip the adoption for the mainstream.”

When asked what variations of take-up across the EMEA countries he sees, Velez says: “Microsoft UC has many functional parts including email, unified messaging, instant messaging, presence, audio/video/web conferencing, softphone, and core call management. Some enterprises are adopting one or many functions concurrently. We have a growing community of voice partners that are helping firms understand how to transform their estate of network and communication assets into more productive and efficient environments.”

Freedman highlights a number of notable early adopters such as Royal Dutch Shell (also affiliated with the Nortel-Microsoft Innovative Communications Alliance), Banque de Luxembourg, and both Universitätsklinik Aachen and Festo in Germany.

Across the board, though, she agrees that adoption of Microsoft’s UC technologies is still in its early stages: “OCS 2007 was officially launched in October 2007. Interestingly, one of the flagship customers at the OCS launch event was L'Occitane in France. Based on our current assumptions, most organisations that have adopted the MSFT approach have begun the Exchange 2007 upgrades, but have only used limited IP telephony functionality. The majority of them are still focused on using instant messaging and presence; but, more importantly, most implementations have not been enterprise-wide.”