As voice becomes another enterprise application, Microsoft and its partners are positioning themselves to become a major player in the communications market, writes lan Campbell
At 20-20 Vision, the recent Ergo customer event where its experts showcased cutting-edge technologies, the biggest buzz was around Microsoft Lync. Out of the box, the unified communication (UC) platform offers firms of all size a viable and feature rich alternative to the traditional telephone system.
"People don't know what it does at the outset, but once they've had it on a trial basis they don't want it to go back," said Austin Hutton, Ergo's Lync specialist. They quickly see the merits of instant messaging, voice and video conferencing, but it's the simplicity of presence that often has the biggest impact, according to Hutton. "When you can see instantly if the person you are trying to communicate with is busy or available, it makes a big difference and saves a lot of time."
The ability to take a single number with you wherever you go is also persuasive. Users can sign into the Lync server over the internet from anywhere. Incoming calls come over the public phone system to the Lync server and then go out over the internet as a voice-over IP call.
"You can pick it up on a softphone on a laptop and take it through a USB headset, or plug an IP phone into the router and take it that way," said Hutton. "But the real strength is that it integrates with office applications and the PBX phone system if you still have one."
Switching from a traditional telephone system to Lync will understandably fill some organisations with trepidation – no one wants to risk losing a dial tone - which is why Ergo recommends a phased approach. "They can slowly migrate away from desk phones and transfer their extension numbers over to Lync clients. In the pilot base we encourage them to try out instant messaging. We also support them with training and provide quick reference cards'' said Hutton. In Ergo's experience, many businesses have aIready virtualised some servers and have the extra memory for running Lync on site. They can choose to allocate three or four servers to the application depending on the level of availability they want.
Does it work out cheaper than traditional telephony? The answer is not clear cut, you lose the running costs of having to call out engineers for “adds, moves and changes", but you are also entering the realms of Microsoft's revenue model where every user has to have a licence. Where the sums add up is around video conferencing, according to Hutton. Because it comes free and out of the box with Lync, it brings real savings to companies that have been using third-party webhosted solutions.
"We had one client with a team of people who were involved in web conferences three times a week, each lasting half an hour. It was costing them thousands. Lync lets them do the same thing for a fraction of the cost," said Hutton.
Quality of service is not an issue, according to Hutton, who claimed the telephone experience with Lync is superior to a PBX. 'If Lync can't make a call that's good quality, then it won't give you a call. It checks the bandwidth first," he said "And if the quality deteriorates during a call, if bandwidth drops, it has the ability to drop down the codec while advising you that there's a problem. Very rarely will it happen, because only 64 kilobytes of data is required for one Lync voice call".
With Lync 2013, video is also taking a leap. Not only is it full 1080p HD, it also boasts features such as face detection and smart framing, enabling the camera to track participants if they move around as they speak. Other features include mobile clients for disparate devices - Apple and Android as well as Windows 8 - that will let users make voiceover IP calls over wifi or 3G networks.
"Microsoft's plan is to have Lync everywhere, eradicating the need for the public telephone network," said Hutton. "They bought Skype; Xbox is everywhere - and they can all communicate with Lync". Microsoft is rewriting the codecs of Skype to make it work with Lync for video calls to bring its 32 million users inside the Lync conferencing radar. Instant messenger already works with Google Talk.
Another gap in the Lync armoury is also being addressed. To date it has not been suitable for contact centre deployments, but the acquisition of a British firm, Aspect Software, brings expertise in the sector that is likely to filter through to future Lync iterations. The Seattle software giant clearly has an appetite for new conquests in the business market and is determined to make communications another part of its best-selling applications portfolio.
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