I see that a couple of MSofties (Eileen and Mayur) have excitedly blogged about Microsoft's new "OC" application that was announced as part of the Real-Time Collaboration launch event that I attended on March 8th. Although its IM features will be best in class, the real value add is in the integrated voice and phone control features. There's a good reason why we're calling it Integrated (as opposed to Unified) Communications. As BillG explained during the Q&A session at the launch, Unified Communications generally means consolidating the support for phone, voicemail, and fax into a single PBX (which typically requires a rather expensive hardware upgrade or replacement from companies like Avaya, Cisco, and Nortel) and the access to these services into a single user application (typically an e-mail client like Outlook). In contrast, Integrated Communications is about leveraging existing PBXs by using CTI (from a vendor like Genesys), which typically costs only 15-20% of a PBX upgrade/replacement, and integrating the call control features into a Real-Time Collaboration client -- yup, that would be Office Communication 2005 -- which is tightly integrated with a set of Productivity applications -- yup, you guessed it, that would be Office Professional 2003 and SharePoint 2003. So, with everything integrated, you can see that a colleague to whom you need to send an urgent message is on the phone (since with CTI, phone-based presence status is now available) and send her an IM instead. Or while you're enjoying a nice cup of java at your favorite coffee shop (and surfing the Web -- oops, I mean, doing some work -- on your WiFi-enabled laptop), you see a call coming into your office phone from someone important, you can actually redirect it to your cell phone, so you can answer the call right there and then!
[Update - another scenario (true story): I was at Starbucks this morning where I had planned to enjoy a nice latte while listening in on a few concalls. After sitting down, I noticed that my cell phone battery had died. Instead of driving into the office or back home, I decided to give the "soft phone" feature in OC a try. So, I put on my headphones and via Starbucks' WiFi network, I VPN'd into MSCorpNet, opened up OC, dialed the concall#, and viola, I was in the concall and can hear everyone quite clearly! Although I was on mute for most of the call, I did speak on several occasions, and the people on the call had no idea that I was using a soft phone - the voice quality was that good! At the end of the call, when I finally explained what I had done, everyone was amazed and wanted to know how they can get this setup on their laptops. Unfortunately, I had to dial into my next concall. :-)]
Yes, this is all very cool (and useful) stuff, but I wouldn't go as far as John Dickinson of The MessagingPipeline in declaring that "e-mail is history." I believe that asynchronous (“on your own time”) communications using e-mail and teamsites will remain the dominate method of collaboration, but it will be greatly enhanced and optimized by the advent of integrated real-time communications platforms like LCS 2005 and clients like OC 2005. What do you think?