Microsoft is working on a "service in the sky" for unified communications, an executive announced at the VoiceCon conference in San Francisco yesterday.

The company's current focus for the fast-growing trend of combining voice, video, text and other forms of communication is Office Communications Server 2007, which Microsoft said Bill Gates will unveil on 16 October.

But at the same time, it is working on providing these capabilities as a service, said Warren Barkley, a principal group program manager at Microsoft. He mentioned the project in passing at the end of an early-morning panel session at VoiceCon. He didn't give a timeline for availability.

Barkley cited the need to serve small businesses that can be widely distributed. Unlike large enterprises, they generally lack the IT resources to set up and run a communications system that reaches employees around the world.

Microsoft already offers a hosted collaboration platform, LiveMeeting, and is moving to offer applications such as CRM as services. One of the benefits of unified communications is the ability to integrate voice and other communications into productivity applications, and Microsoft's move could be aimed at a convergence of the two trends.

Customers like to have products delivered in a variety of ways, and when they want a product delivered as a service, Microsoft tries to satisfy them, said Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Unified Communications Group, in an interview on Tuesday.

Microsoft's unified communications will be delivered as a service either by Microsoft itself, through partners, or in a combination of the two, he said. Those details are still being worked out.

Cisco Systems, still a rival in unified communications despite the two companies' announcement early this week that they will make their products work together, acquired hosted collaboration provider WebEx in March this year. But neither company has talked much about offering unified communications itself as a network-based service.

WebEx already offers WebOffice, a set of applications offered as a service, although Cisco said at the time of the acquisition that it wasn't planning to become a SAAS (software-as-a-service) powerhouse.