Last spring I wrote a column titled: Yes, Microsoft is Serious About Telephony. The focus of that column was a Microsoft project, code-named Valhalla. It was an exciting initiative a complete communication server architecture based around CT Media that tied together emerging de-facto telephony standards with de-facto Microsoft interfaces (TAPI, DCOM, etc.), on the NT platform. Properly implemented (and marketed), Valhalla could have been a real contender.
But less than a year later, Microsoft has scrapped the program. Why? Though some details of the story are obscure, it looks like Microsofts well-intentioned plans have been quashed by resistance from the telephony industry, itself. Ironic, since the telephony industry (considered as a whole) was supposed to be the biggest beneficiary of the Valhalla initiative.
To Steve Ballmers credit, he understands that the telephony players are big Microsoft customers. Microsoft meets with the major PBX vendors (Lucent, Nortel, Siemens, etc.) on a regular basis, to discuss how to better serve their needs. And there are many improvements in Windows 2000 that can be credited to these interactions.
With regard to Valhalla, however, Microsoft seems to have missed noticing PBX vendors fears that Microsoft was going to get into their business, and change it in the process. The Valhalla team wanted to provide open solutions to the PBX/key community and determined that call control (a.k.a., the crown jewels) was a critical component. In light of Microsofts drive to get multiple application solution providers in every application category (an advantage of open systems/platforms), its easy to see why the incumbent telecom vendors might be resistant. What was their incentive for supporting a platform that would eliminate barriers to entry, and let anyone become a PBX/key system solutions provider, offering the best application solutions? In fact, were such a platform to appear, the incumbents would find themselves in a less-than-ideal position compared with new market entrants strapped with migrating and supporting legacy applications that, in the short term, might not compete well with new solutions.
The result? After months of effort, Microsoft could not convince any of the major PBX vendors to support Valhalla.
As is typical of Microsoft, they had some very very smart people (Thomas Pfenning and Charlie DeJong) running and/or involved with the program. A few even had telephony experience (Mark Lee, Toby Nixon, Zig Serafin, and Shawn Loveland, for example). But even these voices and what I believe were the best of intentions werent sufficient to allay incumbent fears that, given the opportunity, Microsoft would come to dominate the telephony market, as it has so many others.
Certainly, all is not lost. At this point, Mark Lee says, Microsoft has elected to leave the communications servers to Intel, and expand other initiatives (eg., Windows 2000) that will, perforce, contribute to products in the CommFusion space. Meanwhile, has anyone noticed that someone else is working on an open architecture CommFusion platform that will support applications from multiple vendors?
Interestingly, the news from Dialogic/Intels camp seems better. One of those applications will come from Lucents latest acquisition SoundLogic. Congratulations to Pat Howard, Combiz Jelveh, and Hossein Malek from SoundLogic, and applause to Steven Glapa, Lucents agent of change. Think about it: A Lucent application running on a competitors hardware platform!
On another front, it appears the Davids are beating the Goliaths. Reports are that companies like Sphere, Shoreline, and others are regularly beating Cisco in the IP phone space.
Jim Burton is president of computer telephony consulting firm CT Link. He can be reached at 707-963-9966 or via fax at 707-963-9944.