Interview Forget competition - Microsoft is all about collaboration now. At least, it is if you’re Anoop Gupta, corporate vice president of the real-time collaboration group at Microsoft.
He’s Bill Gates’s former ‘personal technology assistant’, spending 20 hours a week with the Great Helmsman from 2001 until 2003. He has been right at heart of Redmond’s strategic high command during critical years, and he even has a Bill Gates fringe to prove it.
He was there during the vital early conception of Longhorn. But of course, he’s not allowed to talk about it. “It was an interesting time,” is all he will say. We have in fact met at a Soho restaurant to nurse his jet-lag with some Tuscan white bean soup (with real thyme) and discuss his new brief, real-time collaboration.
Real-time collaboration is basically anything that involves instant-messenger style presence. And the fact that Gates’s former right-hand man is working on it shows how important Microsoft hopes it will be.
“Communications is going from number-centric to people-centric,” says Gupta. “And presence becomes very important in that. My team is responsible for the presence stack across the whole organisation.”
The idea is you can built presence icons into Outlook, Sharepoint, CRM, ERP or any other application, Microsoft or otherwise, which involves talking to someone else. They let you know if who’s online and whether they feel like talking to you.
If they do, you click a button to launch a text, voice or video based chat.
Technically, it’s not that hard to do. “It only requires five lines of code to launch the presence object,” says Gupta. In other words, to incorporate a presence icon which will launch an IM window, though of course the APIs are there to customise and integrate it further if you so desire.
These, he says, will be coming soon to a CRM tool near you. “We’re in discussions with all the major players,” he says.
Join the Federation
But very little of this has happened yet. Microsoft has been putting the plumbing in place with recent releases of back-end software, such as the Real-time communication server, formerly known as Greenwich.
But it’s not just a question of software releases. Microsoft owns only a proportion of the consumer IM world, which it shares with Yahoo! and AOL, and the three have been famously unwilling to talk to each other.
The three have always been reluctant to allow their systems to each other. So they’re about as useful as a Nokia phone which can’t dial an Ericsson or a Motorola.
Microsoft recently announced that the next version of its Live Communications Server, 2005, will be able to talk to all three consumer IM networks.
“That means that businesses can ban all the consumer IM clients, with all the security and accountability problems that they bring,” says Gupta.
Even this took a great deal of soothing and assurance, he says, to convince the others that it wouldn’t be used as a way of favouring Microsoft. “We had to be very careful to be sure that we could create a level playing field with all three.”
Linking businesses to the big consumer networks, with their millions of worldwide subscribers, was the first step. The next one is allowing different businesses to hook up their Live Communication Servers and talk to each other.
“How do we talk to them? You can do point-to-point, or you can go through clearing houses, on the hub-and-spoke model. We are talking to multiple partners about who is going to build that. You will have global clearing houses and specialised ones.”
An early pioneer of the specialist model is the system Reuters has built for the financial services community, using Microsoft technology and “some chewing gum,” according to Gupta. The global clearing house surely represents a tempting opportunity for someone – perhaps the big telcos. But they will have to win the trust of the IM providers, and meet the increasingly stringent security needs of the end-user community.
New IM client - touching the VoIP
Of course, presence isn’t just about text-based communications. The idea is to build it into voice and video communications as well. Yahoo! instant messenger already does both of these, and Microsoft is keen to follow its lead.
Previously, Microsoft has offered more or less the same IM client to everyone, whether they’re senior businessmen or teenage girls. But in the next six-seven months, says Gupta, Microsoft is will launch a new IM client, focused on information workers.
“Our instant messaging clients have been fairly generic,” says Gupta. “We are coming out with a specialised information worker client which will make it very easy to integrate with telephony applications.”
Users will be able to click on an icon to switch from IM to voice.
“Like Yahoo! it will go direct to VoIP, and it can also do [voice calls through the] PSTN (public switched telephone network) if there is the appropriate ‘connector’ installed on the LAN where there's a corporate network scenario - the connector being a piece of software for call control that works with the APIs of the switch that's installed.”
“It is probable that at some point similar versions of this will also be available on the consumer side, but the RTC group is just focused on the Information Worker scenarios at the moment.”
The enterprise has shown considerable enthusiasm for instant messenger, which is likely to grow as conservative IT chiefs get their heads round the security implications.
Whether this translates into similar enthusiasm for RTC is not yet certain. If Microsoft can come up with a convincing answer to the federation question, it could happen. And it could be a potent weapon in Microsoft’s battle to find features useful enough to persuade users that it’s worth upgrading.
But Gupta and his colleagues will be need to take care that it doesn’t end up like consumer instant messenger – a wildly popular and extremely useful service that nobody wants to pay for. ®