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Optical/IP

Microsoft Pushes Deeper Into Carriers

A few years ago, Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) was struggling for credibility in the carrier world (see Portal Gets Jiggy With Microsoft).

But times have changed. The software giant's IPTV software is making inroads at some of the world's biggest carriers (see Verizon Makes Microsoft Video King, SBC Awards MS $400M IPTV Deal , and Telecom Italia Trials IPTV). And a new service creation platform (launched on Monday at the 3GSM World Congress in Cannes, France, by a man in a beret wearing a string of onions around his neck) has the seal of approval from three carriers, including BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) and BCE Inc. (NYSE/Toronto: BCE), better known as Bell Canada (see Microsoft Intros FMC Solution).

The new service creation system, dubbed Connected Services Framework, is designed to allow fixed and mobile carriers to quickly create and deliver new services to customers, no matter what sort of network connection or end user device they have.

On the face of it, the benefits Microsoft claims for the Connected Services Framework sound alarmingly similar to those attributed to the standards-based IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) platforms being developed and furiously hyped by telecom equipment vendors at present. So is this a Microsoft alternative to IMS?

No, says Andrew Steven, VP for the EMEA region at Microsoft's Communications Sector division. The Connected Services Framework coexists with IMS systems and is focused on helping service providers deliver Web services, such as hosted email, rather than the real-time SIP-based services such as VOIP that IMS platforms will manage.

There are similarities, however, as Microsoft's system incorporates session, profile, ID and resource managers -- the sorts of capabilities also included in the myriad of software stack elements that comprise an IMS-based system.

There are marked differences too, of course, including the obligatory reliance of the Microsoft system on... er, other Microsoft systems, such as Windows 2003 and SQL servers. In fact, to gain the benefits that Microsoft says its Connected Services Framework can deliver, a carrier would need a whole slew of Microsoft technology.

Isn't that a major turn-off, given that carriers are looking at ways in which they can reduce their reliance on proprietary technology?

"This is all based on XML, and, in time, XML will power the standards bodies of the world," says Steven, sticking to the corporate quote book. "We can claim as much as anyone that we have open standards," states the Microsoft man, adding, almost counter-productively, that Java, the application building block technology developed by Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNW), "is equally proprietary."

Steven, though, is keen to convince that the Connected Services Framework is suitable for an open, carrier-grade environment, and cites the named operator users to support the claims.

The system has been designed with standards-based interfaces so it can work with incumbent OSS and billing platforms, notes Steven. Microsoft has based the OSS interface components on TeleManagement Forum standards, such as SID (shared information/data), NGOSS (new generation OSS), and eTOM (enhanced telecom operations management), he notes.

In addition, Microsoft has been working with carriers such as BT to develop carrier-grade, business-critical versions of its products that can support the rigors of an operator environment, notes Steven.

But, he adds, "this is about business benefits, not technology. Carriers want to launch new services, and this enables them to do that. It lowers the barriers to entry for developers wanting to create new applications that can run on carriers' networks," such as ticket-based promotional services, location-based services, and so on.

The key functionality of Microsoft's system, says Steven, comes from its Service Catalogue and Service Logic Orchestration modules, which allow developers to stitch together simple services, such as downloading a ringtone to a mobile handset and the marketing of an associated single music track or album that can be delivered across a high-speed wireless or fixed connection, and stitching them together to make a more complex service.

"Creating such services requires access to lots of different service delivery components, including provisioning and billing mechanisms. Ours is the only system that enables the creation of such complex services" that can drive revenues and turn a $1 single transaction into a $15 multiple transaction, claims the Microsoft man.

That's the theory, at any rate, and the initial carrier users are looking to exploit the system's flexibility to test out different services, with BT and Bell Canada looking to provide a range of hosted application services for small and medium-sized businesses that can be bundled with access lines.

BT believes that using the system will dramatically decrease the time it takes to create and take a new service to the business market.

The third named carrier, mobile operator Celcom Malaysia, will use the system to deliver email, scheduling, and instant messaging services.

There is a sense, though, that these carriers, especially BT and Bell Canada, are already converts, and have already invested time, people, capex, and marketing budget that support the Microsoft way of doing things (see Microsoft, BT Target SMEs, BT, Microsoft Extend Alliance, BT Teams Up With Microsoft , Bell Canada, Microsoft Trial TV Service, and Bell Canada Reports Solid Q1).

And there are still doubts about whether Microsoft has the capabilities to deliver truly carrier-grade systems, and well-voiced doubts about the problems carriers could face by locking themselves into proprietary solutions from such a vendor (see Swiss IPTV Trial Hits 'Glitches').

— Ray Le Maistre, International News Editor, Light Reading

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