Lync 2013: Microsoft Revs Up Its UC Platform

Microsoft is turbo-charging everything about its unified communications platform -- from customer adoption and partner engagement to multiplatform capabilities and release cadence.

Not long ago, even some of the most committed Microsoft partners advised customers to take a gradual approach with Microsoft Lync.

"Part of it was based on our own recommendations to customers that, when implementing Lync, they should perhaps not start with the voice piece out of the gate because that's the most complicated piece," says Scott Gode, a senior director at Avanade Inc. "Start with just instant messaging only, or conferencing only, or instant messaging plus conferencing."

Gode, speaking of his experience at Azaleos, another major Microsoft partner acquired by Avanade a few months ago, says the technical implementations of enterprise voice were challenging early on.

"We would go and architect the perfect, pristine, golden Lync environment," Gode says, "and we'd then put that into a corporate environment. What we found was that the network we were putting that Lync environment into either was stable when we first examined it and then became unstable later because...the company added some other bandwidth-sucking application, or we didn't properly assess the network to begin with. So the end result was that, regardless of the brilliant Lync architecture, the customer experience was bad as it relates to the quality of the voice calls and the quality of the conferencing."

"A year ago only 10 percent [of our customers used] enterprise voice. Now, [it's] over 50 percent."

Scott Gode, Senior Director, Avanade Inc.

There were social engineering reasons to go slow, as well. Gode says the partial approach helped train end users in working with the new modalities of unified communications (UC), while they continued to use regular phones in the traditional, comfortable way.

"Certainly there's a portion of the consumer population who have gotten used to things like Skype, and are gradually getting comfortable with that notion of VoIP [voice-over IP], but it's a different thing when you bring it into the enterprise," Gode says. He adds it's wise for organizations to be careful on how VoIP gets rolled out, and that help desk calls diminish as users become more confident.

Now, though, those technical challenges are getting easier to overcome, the user support issues are diminishing and customers are demanding enterprise voice as part of their Lync implementations.

"A year ago only 10 percent [of our customers used] enterprise voice," Gode says. "Now, over 50 percent of the new Lync business that's coming our way is enterprise-voice-related. So there's a renewed confidence in Lync as a very viable voice platform. And especially with this 2013 release, [there's] very much a bullishness on the part of enterprise IT and the telephony folks in that enterprise space that Lync is alive."

The progress on the enterprise voice piece serves as a good metaphor for the state of Lync in general. With Lync 2013 representing the fourth server release for the UC platform, Lync is maturing as Microsoft adds more and more features -- filling holes for competitive parity while leveraging Microsoft's mostly software approach to redefine what UC can entail. The platform is being taken seriously by competitors, analysts, partners and customers. The debate no longer centers on whether Microsoft is a serious competitor in UC -- it's now about whether Microsoft is yet a prime-time player and, if so, what prime time in UC looks like. The change in attitudes has occurred as Microsoft has kept its foot on the gas pedal for development and evangelism of the platform.

An example of a competitor taking Microsoft very seriously is Cisco Systems Inc., which recently greeted the first-of-its-kind Microsoft Lync Conference 2013 with a series of blog entries to highlight the shortcomings of Lync. Cisco called out Microsoft for, among other things, leaving customers with a multiple-vendors-pointing-fingers nightmare when it comes time to diagnose a problem.

"Microsoft's approach with Lync leaves out several important collaboration elements many enterprise organizations find critical today -- such as phones, video endpoints, voice and video gateways, networking and cloud PSTN [public switched telephone network] connections," wrote Rowan Trollope, Cisco senior vice president and general manager of collaboration, in a February blog post on the eve of the Lync conference. "These components need to be procured, integrated and supported separately for those who choose to use Lync. And, in our opinion, that could lead to increased complexity, cost and risk, not to mention the hours spent trying to figure out 'who's on first' when troubleshooting is an issue."

There's a reason that Trollope is concerned about Microsoft offering what he describes as UC "basics like IM, conferencing and VoIP." Even before the release of Lync Server 2013, analysts at Gartner Inc. placed Microsoft just behind Cisco in one of Gartner's signature "Magic Quadrant" graphics for UC. The two companies occupy the leader positions in the grid -- higher up and further to the right than any other companies.

And Microsoft's software-first vision is gaining ground with customers and the channel. Former Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates laid out that vision five years ago, saying, "In the next decade, sweeping technology innovation driven by the power of software will transform communication."

At its Lync Conference in San Diego, Microsoft reiterated earlier statements that Lync revenues are in the $2 billion-a-year range, and boasted that 90 of the Fortune 100 companies are Lync customers and 1,000 partners have Lync practices. Partners also made up 300 of the 1,000 Lync Conference attendees, according to Microsoft.

More specific to VoIP, or what Microsoft is calling enterprise voice, the company is claiming 2 million new users in the last 14 months. "We now have roughly 5 million users in the world that don't have a PBX phone anymore," says B.J. Haberkorn, director of product marketing for Lync at Microsoft. "That's actually a pretty striking number in that amount of time if you look at this market," he says of the 2 million-user gain. Microsoft itself went from about 30,000 users using Lync without a PBX four years ago to all 100,000-plus employees on VoIP now, Haberkorn notes in a reference to the type of staged-rollout time frames typical of large UC deployments. The implication? Without a single new deal, the customers who bought some of those 2 million seats could install millions more as pilots turn into departmental deployments, which then expand into organization-wide rollouts.

Improvements in deployment tools and network-assessment capabilities from Microsoft and partners, meanwhile, are making the rollout of enterprise voice on Lync less difficult.

First and Best on Windows?
Enterprise voice is only one of the competitive knocks against Lync. Another recurrent criticism involves something Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said to The New York Times for a May 2012 story marking the anniversary of Microsoft's $8.5 billion deal to buy Skype. Cisco likes to quote Ballmer as having said "first and best on Windows" and apply it to Microsoft's entire UC portfolio. Cisco's framing efforts may be bearing some fruit; a recent Forrester Research Inc. report on Office 2013 notes the "baggage of 'Windows, first and best'" positioning on Microsoft Lync clients for iOS and Android.

In fact, Ballmer's full statement referred to Skype, not Lync, and came in the context of a statement about the importance of multiplatform support. "We always want Skype to be first and best on Windows, but certainly a strategic part of the value in communications software is working on all platforms. We're committed to that cross-platform support," The New York Times quoted Ballmer as saying.

Tony Bates, president of the Microsoft Skype Division that also includes the Lync business, reinforced the importance of multiplatform support, especially for smartphones. "People choose their devices; they don't choose the technology platforms. We understand that and we know how important that is within the communications context," Bates said at the Lync Conference. "Our commitment to all of you is to empower that choice."

"We've talked a lot about B2B. And when we brought Skype and came into Microsoft, we started to think about B2C [Business-to-Consumer]. But I think it really goes way beyond this, and we call this 'B2X."

Tony Bates, President, Skype Division, Microsoft

Derek Burney, a Microsoft corporate vice president for Skype, followed Bates on stage to kick off a series of what he called "first demos" of a critical Lync capability -- simultaneous VoIP and video -- on various devices.

True to critics' charges, Burney performed his first demo on a Windows Phone 8 device, but it was only first by a few minutes. The demo involved talking to a remote coworker over Lync and seeing her on the Windows Phone device, while she could also see video of him and responded to a wave of his hand.

Burney immediately redid the demo with an Android phone. The VoIP-and-video demo was the same, while all other features, such as improvements in click-to-join meetings and conversation history, also appeared.

Burney pointed out the major difference: "We've tried to preserve as much of what Lync is as possible, but still develop the product with a nod to the underlying platform on which it sits. This one is on Android, so the application looks a little bit more like an Android device." Burney showed nav buttons across the top, in keeping with the Android paradigm, and when the menus opened they showed the same capabilities the Windows Phone device had.

A few minutes later, Burney ran the same "first" demo of VoIP and video on an Apple iPhone -- again with the same features, but this time with the Lync-ish spin on the look and feel of an iPhone app.

For his next trick, Burney pulled out an Apple iPad, repeating the demo on a new iPad app that takes advantage of the iPad's larger screen to allow users to view multiple people in a meeting and to see PowerPoint slides in a presentation.

That demo came before a Windows 8 demo, and the biggest irony of the presentation. While the Android, iPhone and iPad demos all worked relatively seamlessly, Burney struggled with a microphone conflict that prevented him from launching a meeting demo on the Windows 8 device for several minutes. Every demo problem is a black eye. And the Lync app for Windows 8 does have many more capabilities (read, things to go wrong) than the pure-play mobile platform apps. But the fact that the other platform demos worked without any problems was at least a bright spot for Microsoft's argument that it's making an honest effort at cross-platform support.

The Windows 8, Windows Phone and iOS apps that Burney demoed at the show appeared in their respective online stores in March. The Android app is expected to be available early this month.

A Room with a View
Microsoft is expanding Lync in other ways beyond responding to what competitors and analysts say it lacks. Burney showed another demo at the conference involving a new method of bringing remote participants into a boardroom meeting.

Billed the "Lync Room System," the configuration depends on a Microsoft Lync Room System Edition and specialized hardware that's on the way from Crestron Electronics Inc., LifeSize, Polycom Inc. and Smart Technologies. Systems are expected to hit the market throughout the year, starting this summer.

For his demo, Burney used prototype hardware from Smart that included a high-definition camera, wideband audio and two big-screen LCD monitors side by side, with the left screen devoted to whiteboard activity while the right side showed remote meeting participants.

Current video teleconferencing systems (VTCs) take an average of 12 minutes to get started, and are just too complex, Burney contended.

"People don't know how to work the conferencing systems in a boardroom," Burney said. "What if you had a button to push to do it all?"

The Smart version of the Lync Room System touchscreen allowed Burney to write in digital ink of different colors on a whiteboard, present PowerPoint slides and move content around the board. "In the virtual world, remote participants can add to the whiteboard," said Burney, as one of his meeting participants remotely placed a document on the board.

What About Skype?
May 2013 will mark the two-year anniversary of the announcement of Microsoft's massive acquisition of Skype. Right from the start in 2011, there was talk about integration of Skype with Lync. The attractiveness of the arrangement is obvious. Skype brings with it access to (now) 300,000 users worldwide. Federating the networks would greatly expand the utility of Lync for voice and video calling. Employees at an enterprise with Lync could call outside the Lync network without requiring the more complicated PSTN-connected installations of Lync. And those they call would require no purchased software at all.

In some ways the merger serves as an object lesson in how difficult it can be to coordinate two massive organizations, their visions, their technology, their business plans, their roadmaps, their cultures and their people. Ballmer and Bates, the heads of both organizations at the time of the acquisition, remain in place and provide consistency of leadership. Yet the progress on the Skype-Lync integration has been halting.

One promised feature of Lync 2013 is greater integration of Skype and Lync. A July report by Gartner on upcoming features of the then-yet-to-be-released platform called it a "first step in a longer-term strategy to connect Lync with...Skype users, thus giving Microsoft greater mindshare in the consumer market and extending business communications to customers, partners and suppliers." At the time, Microsoft was telling Gartner analysts to expect IM, presence and voice federation between Lync and Skype, with video federation coming later.

Yet another "first demo" at the Lync Conference showed that the functionality didn't arrive with the original version of Lync 2013 server, which released to manufacturing (RTM) in October 2012. In the demo, Bates used Skype to instant message Burney on Lync and the two initiated an audio conversation from their IM session.

Call quality was good and the demo worked seamlessly, but Burney noted, "This is not final by any means." In fact, Burney claimed his call with Bates was the first public demo of an audio call with one user on Skype and the other on Lync. Microsoft says the Skype-Lync integration functionality will be available in June.

Even if progress seems to drag a bit, Microsoft's plans remain ambitious for bringing Skype's full reach into the highly controlled environment of Lync.

"Video comes next, and then you'll see us over a period of time start to add features and capabilities to bring those together even more," Bates said.

He described the Lync-Skype connectivity as "a new concept for the unified communications industry," calling it "B2X." He said that B2X will be "dynamic, fluid and about human connections."

"We've talked a lot about B2B. And when we brought Skype and came into Microsoft, we started to think about B2C [Business-to-Consumer]. But I think it really goes way beyond this, and we call this 'B2X.' You should have this in the way that you want, from business to any endpoint device in any context to any modality," Bates said. "The new currency of B2X is conversations -- rich, deep conversations."

Even once the IM, presence and voice integration of Lync and Skype is complete, Microsoft is showing no signs of letting up on the gas. "You're going to see us go on a much faster cadence," Bates promised. First there are the near-term releases -- the mobile clients that are nearly all delivered, the critical first deliverable of Skype integration in June and the Room Systems that should start rolling out over the summer. The most recent version of Lync Online with Lync 2013 compatibility became available with an update of the rest of the Office 365 suite on Feb. 27. But Microsoft is now committing to a quarterly release schedule for Lync Online. Bates also said a new release of the core Lync Server will arrive in the second quarter of 2014. Key features planned for that release, at least at this early date, include meeting enhancements and more video support.

Pedal to the Metal
Like many Microsoft platform products, Lync has a lot of moving pieces. In an eight-month rollout from server RTM to general availability of various pieces to subsequent add-ons, it's sometimes hard to keep straight what's a real capability that a customer can use today versus vaporware that may or may not come tomorrow. With Lync -- which depends more than many Microsoft platform products on third parties for hardware -- that mental puzzle is necessarily trickier. But the upshot with Lync is that the pieces are coming together to form an engine capable of high speed in the 2013 generation.

Enterprise voice adoption for Lync among customers is speeding up, Microsoft's cross-platform mobility story is becoming compelling, third parties are bringing impressive capabilities, and Skype integration that will vastly increase the scope of Lync communications is finally coming online.

With only about 1,000 partners delivering Lync solutions out of Microsoft's hundreds of thousands of partners, the channel is hardly saturated. Partners who install that Lync engine into their businesses and put the pedal to the metal should be able to steer into open lanes stretching ahead to the horizon.