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Starting next week Microsoft will be banging the drum in earnest about the value of unified communications within the context of Microsoft Office.

This push by Microsoft should be welcomed by the channel primarily for two reasons. The first is that it creates an application that has enough gravitas in terms of increasing productivity of employees to entice a customer to upgrade to the next version of Office running on Vista along with the new version of Exchange. This is no small thing because in terms of business value Vista has thus far provided zero compelling reasons to get customers to upgrade. But in a world where every minute counts, a unified communications solution that actually makes it easier for people to do their everyday jobs is at least going to get a hearing.

Click here to read more about Microsoft’s Unified Commmunications products.

The second good thing about all this chatter about unified communications is the simple fact that more capability at the front end is going to drive more demand for services powered by the network at the back end. That means there should be a lot more Microsoft-focused solution providers looking to partner with companies such as Cisco, Nortel, Juniper, Avaya and Siemens that provide a lot of the networking infrastructure and related applications that are really going to be needed to power unified communications.

It’s true that some of these companies will resent Microsoft’s efforts to displace them on the client side of the unified communications equation, but the reality is that Microsoft is going to be a major driver of demand for these types of applications, so when all is said and done the actual unified communications pie is going to be a whole lot bigger after Microsoft enters the market than before it. This is only one of the reasons why analysts are forecasting that unified communications will be a $1 billion market before the end of the decade.

Of course, Microsoft has a history of creating demand that it can’t necessarily satisfy before, say, the third release of a major software initiative. So with that history in mind, solution providers would also do well to keep an eye on companies such as ObjectWorld and CommuniGate Systems that have specialized in the unified communications space for a number of years. As a result, they’ve already learned many of the school-of-hard-knocks lessons that Microsoft is about to experience because no matter what Microsoft or anybody else has to say about this space, talking about it is a whole lot easier than doing it. And for those brave enough to go forward, be warned that a unified communications solution that results in the end customer being unable to communicate for even a couple of hours is likely to lose you the account a whole lot fast than say a flaky piece of hardware that needs to replaced the next day.

For more on unified communications, you might want to check out this Ziff-Davis Enterprise virtual trade show.

Michael Vizard is editorial director of Ziff Davis Enterprise’s Enterprise Technology group. He can be reached at