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

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 it will unveil on October 16 at a San Francisco event featuring Bill Gates. But at the same time, it's 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 increasingly are 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 (customer relationship management) as services. One of the key 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. 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.