If you've been around long enough, you might remember Microsoft Mail, the precursor to Exchange Server, and, to this day, the only product that's actually caused me to fall asleep during a Microsoft presentation. Microsoft Mail made it to version 3.5, so the first version of Exchange, though an entirely new product, was released as version 4.0 in 1996. (Again, if you've been around this long, you might remember 1996 as a high point: Microsoft shipped NT 4.0 that year as well. I've been less sleepy ever since.)

For the ensuing decade, Exchange was Microsoft's messaging solution of choice. And unlike its predecessor, Microsoft actually uses Exchange in-house, which is always a promising sign. Exchange has seen dramatic growth and improvement over the intervening years, and today's product, Exchange 2007, is an impressive upgrade with a componentized architecture, roles-based deployment model, full-featured command line and scripting functionality, and an expanded set of features that makes it adaptable to almost any environment.

Key among these improvements is the notion of unified messaging. Exchange 2007 is the first version of Exchange to credibly claim that moniker, with support for voice mail and faxes in addition to the more typical email, calendaring, and tasks-type functionality that marked previous versions. Indeed, it's becoming clear that Exchange 2007 is really just the first peek at the future of unified messaging, where any inter- and intra-business communications can be managed from a central location. Certainly, phone calls, voice mail, faxes, and even instant messaging (IM) can be as mission-critical to your business as is email. They're all just different ways to keep in touch with coworkers and partners, and each has its own pros and cons. And these communications often span different devices, including traditional phones, fax machines, PCs, and smart phones and other portable devices.

If Exchange 2007 is the first step to this future, the upcoming release of Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 may very well be the next step. Due to recent internal reorganizations, this product is being developed under the same umbrella as Exchange, as well as other related products like the Office Communicator 2007 client, the Office Live Meeting conferencing service, and even Microsoft Office RoundTable, a unique 360 degree camera and microphone solution that allows remote users to participate in conferences with several in-person participants.

Office Communications Server 2007 is the successor to Live Communications Server 2005 (Microsoft is reserving the Live moniker for online and hosted services now) and an impressive upgrade. It's designed to be installed in traditional Exchange environments, and adds a number of related features such as the ability to replace traditional PBX systems with VoIP-based solutions that are more manageable than ad hoc solutions like Skype. It also provides a managed IM client--Communicator 2007--that provides multi-person text, audio, and video chat, and interoperates with the most popular public IM networks. Most important, perhaps, Communications Server 2007 offers evolutionary improvements to Microsoft's presence work, so that coworkers attempting to locate or communicate with you can seamlessly discover your availability in a variety of situations. We're not at the point of GPS-based presence functionality yet, but one gets the feeling we'll get there soon.

Obviously, I can't do a product like Communications Server 2007 justice in a short write-up such as this, but I can at least get you started. Microsoft will be shipping a public beta of the product next Monday, and plans to ship the final version of the product in the second quarter of 2007. If you've already settled on Exchange as your messaging solution, this might just be the next logical move. My guess is that we're going to hear a lot about these products working together in the years to come.

Update: OCS 2007 Beta 2 now available

I wrote about Microsoft's OCS 2007 product last week and noted that I'd provide an update when the public beta was available. Well, it is. Head on over to the Microsoft Web site to find out more and grab the beta.

This article originally appeared in the March 20, 2007 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE.