Microsoft on Tuesday launched its unified communications product line, backed by a phalanx of 50 industry partners at a San Francisco event. The software giant is now offering a variety of server, desktop, and device software aimed at consolidating the various ways in which business users communicate with one another. Microsoft's message here is clear: With its easy-to-use software, the company intends to relegate the PBX to the same technological backwater as the mainframe.

"Today's announcement is about is taking the magic of software and applying it to phone calls," Microsoft chairman Bill Gates said during a keynote address at the event. "We don't just say phone calls because, of course, once you get software in the mix, the capabilities go way beyond what anybody thinks of today when we think of phone calls. But really the milestone that we're at is that we're finally bringing to this idea of trying to get in contact with somebody, knowing what number to call, knowing how to connect many people together, knowing when they're available."

From a product standpoint, Microsoft is building on the integrated features in its Active Directory (AD) and Exchange Server products and adding a new server, Office Communications Server, to the mix. On the client, users will be able to integrate IM, voice, and video communications via Office Communicator 2007, and perform virtual meetings via Office Live Meeting, which will now be sold as a hosted service. Microsoft is also providing integration with a new generation of handset- and software-based telephony products, as well as Windows Mobile-based smart phones.

In some ways, the biggest news here is the deep industry involvement. Microsoft was joined on stage by over 50 partners, including such companies as Nortel, Ericsson, Asus, NEC, and SAP, all of whom are creating solutions that integrate with Microsoft's unified communications software and hardware.

"The transformation of software-based communications is going to be as profound as the shift from typewriters to word processors," Gates said. He may just be right.