Microsoft, Nortel, HP and Intel Collaborate on NT Telephony

PBX systems were traditionally developed as proprietary, closed systems by vendors such as Mitel Corp. (, Nortel Networks ( and AT&T Corp. ( Only recently have PBX solutions begun to trickle into the open systems arena. With the announcement of a technology partnership between PBX stalwart Nortel Networks and open systems giants Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp. and Microsoft Corp., the era of PBX-type solutions on Windows NT may be close at hand.

In mid-March at the Technology Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Calif., Nortel Networks, Microsoft, Intel and HP detailed an initiative to develop communications solutions for enterprise customers by integrating voice technology into Windows NT-based telephony systems for enterprisewide communications.

Bill Gates, Microsoft’s CEO, addressed event attendees via live video link. He described the conflation of voice technology and computer systems as a natural result of information technology’s evolution. "[Originally] your server, your data network, connected up to the computers. It was a different wiring structure. Your PBX connected up to your phones," Gates said. "Now, over the years, that barrier has been broken down somewhat with what I’ll call ‘connected systems,’ where you could exchange information, although the infrastructures were still quite separate."

According to Gates, Microsoft is working on a version of its Windows NT/2000 operating system that can be embedded into traditional PBX communications servers. "We’ve had a special effort there, driven by the requirements that have been brought to us by Nortel," he said.

Microsoft plans to release a new version of its telephony application programming interface (TAPI) for its Windows 98 and Windows 2000 operating systems. When released, TAPI 3.0 will permit software written by one vendor to work with telephony hardware manufactured by another, and will allow applications to function without regard for the underlying transport mechanisms. In this way, applications can transparently span a range of Internet, traditional phone line and ATM transport topologies.

On the product side of the alliance, HP and Nortel used the occasion to unveil new integrated telephony solutions that leverage Windows NT server as an underlying platform. The HP Business Communications Server, the first of the combined HP-Nortel solutions, integrates the features and functionality of Nortel's telephony technology with Windows NT Server. The second product, the HP Business Messaging Server, incorporates Nortel's CallPilot unified messaging capabilities.

Also at the announcement, Nortel committed to build its enterprise communications product lines on the Windows NT/2000 platform. In addition, Nortel, HP and Microsoft introduced plans to open a center for the development and testing of mission critical enterprise communications based on Microsoft platform technologies at a Nortel’s facility in Santa Clara, Calif.

According to Rob Enderle, a senior analyst with Giga Information Group (, Nortel’s partnership with Microsoft, HP and Intel is the first such alignment by major players in the voice-IP convergence arena. "There have been other efforts on NT Server, so it’s not so much an initial foray as it is the first really big move utilizing mainstream players," Enderle comments. "This is the first time that a bunch of mainstream players have pulled together and made [voice-IP convergence on NT Server] an initiative."

In detailing the range of collaborative announcements, Gates reiterated his vision of a complete digital system that embraced all aspects of corporate communications. "So I see this convergence of the voice environments and the data environments as really a key building block to achieve the vision of a digital nervous system," Gates explained, noting that the digital nervous system would likely become a top priority for most companies in the coming years. "This goes beyond just having a nice Web site. This goes to how all the information flows inside the company."

Despite Gates’ much-repeated digital nervous system mantra and the recent maneuverings between Microsoft and Nortel, analysts caution that voice-IP convergence solutions based on Windows NT must, like all new technologies, undergo a maturing process.

"Talking at this scale, I’m not convinced that this is something that is going to happen right away," Enderle says. "There’s still going to be some work that needs to be done, although customers are going to be able to use these products right off the bat."