The IT/telecommunications marriage is progressing almost as quickly as data packets travel over fiber-optic networks. Seeking to maximize investments in existing systems, numerous established players are looking for partners in the convergence game, and Microsoft is no exception.

In fact, the future of the software company’s business and telecommunications are linked. So said Steve Ballmer, president of Microsoft, in his keynote address at SuperComm ’99.

The nature of products, such as Microsoft Office and Microsoft Exchange, will be impacted by the convergence of telecommunications and computing, Ballmer said. He added that Microsoft is convinced that, more than any other factor, high-speed data access affects the very nature of the industry.

Strong words from the world’s largest software company. Does this mean Microsoft plans to enter the telecom business? No. Instead, Microsoft’s plan is to build software it will license to telecommunications providers and build strategic relationships with telecom partners.

Take US West and Sprint, for example. Recently, Microsoft announced relationships with both network providers that should prove to be the backbone of future alliances. Specifically, Microsoft will use these alliances to deploy business and consumer services without the hassle of building its own telecom machine. (Microsoft has said that it does not intend to enter the telecom equipment or services industries.)

Instead, Microsoft sees its server and software efforts focused on the telecommunications industry’s demanding needs. The company is pitching its Windows NT platform as a carrier-class network solution. In telecommunications parlance, Microsoft is proposing that telecom providers use Windows NT technology to power their high-speed networks, instead of the current UNIX/mainframe standard.

Microsoft’s Active Operations Support Systems (OSS), promoted at SuperComm earlier in June, play a major role in the organization’s move to support telecom services. The goal is to let businesses easily utilize integrated voice and data services such as digital subscriber line (DSL). The OSS competes with Sun’s Java Advanced Intelligent Networks.

Just how committed to the initiative is Redmond? Windows NT will power Hewlett-Packard’s Colonnade hardware systems, which are being promoted as a carrier-class computer line. The systems will support demand for telecommunications and Internet products and services, while delivering 99.999 percent uptime. That’s the plan, anyway.

Microsoft’s move to position NT as a telecommunications carrier-grade platform has met with some skepticism. Carrier-grade systems have to be bulletproof, and it’s no secret that Windows NT’s reputation has suffered in the past when it comes to reliability. Regardless, Microsoft is moving forward with its effort. The Colonnade line is set to ship in September, and the company insists Windows NT is ready for telecommunications applications.

US West is among the believers. The Baby Bell is relying on Active OSS to operate its MegaWeb Ordering Tool, a Web-based DSL subscription service.

Through Microsoft’s relationship with Sprint, small business consumers can use an integrated platform for complete data and voice services on a single PC server. The service, Communication Solutions for Small Business, provides PBX functionality, a LAN server, Internet access, a communications server, unified messaging, and more—all in one box. Microsoft’s Windows NT-based Small Business Server technology, used on top of Sprint’s BusinessFlex Service, makes it possible.

  • ·        Voice services with PBX features
  • ·        Unified messaging with Microsoft Exchange Server
  • ·        Internet access and Web-hosting services
  • ·        Seamless voice communications over wire line, wireless, and Internet transport services
  • ·        Integrated business applications for vertical markets

The service can be used by organizations with five to 100 employees. It will be marketed by independent value-added providers that are both Sprint Partners and Microsoft Certified Solution Providers.

As the walls between IT and telecom continue to crumble, one thing is certain. Successful companies need to align themselves with appropriate partners, or they could miss the high-speed boat. While some critics contend Microsoft was slow to jump on the Internet, it’s clear that it intends to be at the helm of the convergence race.