Microsoft will to add speech technology to Exchange Server, causing it to compete with its own third-party software partners.

Microsoft unveiled plans to integrate technology from its Microsoft Speech Server into Exchange at a conference in New York yesterday.

The addition of speech technology to the software giant's messaging and collaboration server would push next-generation messaging, such as business users listening to e-mail over a mobile.

The next version of Exchange, codenamed Exchange 12, is expected to be available in the second half of next year, but Microsoft has not decided whether speech technology will be part of that release or the one following it, a spokeswoman said.

At its most basic level, unified messaging means e-mail and voice-mail messages are stored in a single mailbox, and can be accessed through whatever client - mobile phone, laptop, PDA - is available at any given time.

Exchange is Microsoft's platform of choice to provide unified messaging, said Rob Helm, research director with Directions on Microsoft. But one problem unified messaging poses is that the number of messages a user can access in one place could be too large to slog through in a timely fashion. Some filtering of those messages according to relevance may be needed, he said.

"Microsoft is trying to position Exchange as the big inbox in the sky for everything," Helm said. "But the question is, who's going to read all that stuff? You may need automated systems."

This is where speech enablement can help, he said. Until now, speech technology has worked best on specific tasks, such as speech-enabled company name directories and automated customer service systems, that have a limited vocabulary. But extending e-mail systems with speech enablement could provide new scenarios for providing unified messaging, Helm said.

"Speech has worked best in cases where it’s a well-defined task," he said. "I expect the real value may be coming from having an automated system read your e-mail for you and route it to the right place, or read your voicemail and decide what to do with it."

Microsoft already can offer unified messaging to Exchange users through add-on technology from its ISV (independent software vendor) partners, such as Adomo. In July, Adomo released a new product, Voice Messaging for Exchange, which uses Exchange not just as a place to store messages but also as a communications backbone, said Harry Bruner, vice president of sales for Adomo.

The product, comprised of an appliance, a software connector to Exchange and an automated attendant, enables users to access Microsoft Outlook calendar and contact information, as well as e-mails, through a phone, he said.

Bruner said he isn't particularly concerned about the competitive aspect of Microsoft's plans because the new speech-enabled feature of Exchange won't be available for some time, giving companies like Adomo plenty of time to offer its product to the Exchange market. "A future release of Exchange could be two to three years out," he said.