Microsoft is planning to ship in February the first public beta of Office Communications Server 2007, which is key to the company's voice and unified messaging strategy.

The company also plans to ship next month a public beta of Office Communicator 2007, the client software for the 2007 Communications Server product, sources say.

The Microsoft Unified Communications & RTC User Group in the UK has also said in a recent blog posting that betas for Office Communicator and Server 2007 would be available in February.

Microsoft officials would not comment on the beta release cycle, but anannouncement in the next few weeks would come at a strategic time, as long-time rival of Microsoft in this space, IBM’s Lotus, gears up for its annual Lotusphere conference the week of 22 January.

Microsoft began a private beta of the 2007 Comms Server on 11 December with 2,500 IT professionals. The company also hosted a Technology Adoption Programme Summit that same week for 250 IT representatives from 100 companies.

At the time of the summit, Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of Microsoft's unified communications group, said in a statement, "The convergence of telecom and data networks is happening rapidly. Software will integrate these two worlds, enabling IT managers to deliver new communications possibilities that include VoIP [voice over internet protocol]."

With the release of the public beta, a wider swath of corporate users will get a chance to test that proclamation. Microsoft is touting the Server as the platform that lets companies integrate VoIP technology into existing telephony infrastructure. It features native support for the Session Initiation Protocol, lets users instantly launch a phone call from Office 2007 applications, such as Word, Outlook, or Office Communicator, by clicking on the highlighted name of another user.

Microsoft is positioning the Server product alongside Exchange 2007, which was released late last year, as a unified messaging platform. Exchange integrates with Server 2007 to support its built-in auto-attendant for answering and routing inbound voice calls, as well as itsunified messaging that combines voice mail and e-mail in a single in-box.

In June, Microsoft and Nortel unveiled their Innovative Communications Alliance, which incorporates Microsoft's unified communications software and Nortel's Communications Server 1000 IP-PBX.

On Wednesday in New York the pair expanded on the alliance during a joint news conference by introducing three products: branch office hardware for VoIP and unified communications, a unified messaging integration slated to ship in the second quarter of 2007, and integration of Nortel conferencing software and Office Communicator 2007.

Microsoft has also announced partnerships with Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya, Cisco, Mitel Networks, NEC Philips, Polycom and Siemens Communications.