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Microsoft Lync Conference Revisited

March 6, 2013 | Howard Lichtman

Article: Bill Haskins / Wainhouse Research

On February 18, Microsoft hosted its first-ever Lync Conference, welcoming approximately 1000 raving Lync fans, partners and even a few competitors to a rainy and overcast San Diego. The audience included slightly fewer than 30 press and analyst types. Microsoft had already provided a fair amount of Lync 2013 information in late 2012. So it was anyone's guess as to what exactly Seattle's Finest had in store for us. But the event was about more than just Lync.

Skype. The keynote address was delivered by Tony Bates, president of Microsoft's Skype Division, and Derek Burney, Corporate VP of Data and Business Intelligence. While Microsoft has made no secret that the Lync division has been folded under Mr. Bates's Skype umbrella, this was the most public display of the Skype team leading the UC charge we've seen to date. Tony's opening keynote can be found online, but here's our summary of his remarks.

Direction and Philosophy. A "work / life balance" theme was front-and-center through much of the keynote, as phrases like "rehumanization of communication," "bring the living room to the boardroom," and "you're not just a worker" were used often. This consumer-driven theme felt very Skype oriented, but is new to the Lync discussion. Tony also provided four guiding principles that act as a reference point for the future of Microsoft's Lync and Skype evolution, all related to a focus on users, minimizing barriers, multiple platforms, and support for mission critical operations.

Established Base: Tony was sure to add a number of not-so-subtle reminders of the massive scale that Skype brings to the Lync ecosystem: over 300 million Skype users, targeting a scale of "billions of users and transactions." When compared to the updated number of Lync Enterprise Voice users -- 5 million -- these numbers are indeed staggering. The importance of the Microsoft Office installed user base wasn't lost on Tony, however, as he reminded us of the nearly 1 billion Office users out there - a much more important Ying to Skype's Yang from a "base" standpoint.

Cross-Platform Demos: Microsoft has been trumpeting the next generation Lync client for some time, highlighting the fact that it will operate on devices running Windows, Android, and iOS operating systems. However, I must confess that Derek Burney's enthusiastic real-time demos of the pending cross-platform experience were very entertaining. Derek walked through a number of new clients and collaboration scenarios, including:

  • Windows 8 Mobile Experience -- Derek showed us the integration between mobile Sky Drive, OneNote, Outlook Calendar, and a full featured mobile Lync experience -- including contact integration, presence, instant messaging, audio (VoIP) and video. The OneNote integration specifically looks promising -- picture agendas, notes, tasks and updates all tightly integrated with a Lync conference. Derek also joined a Lync conference via video by clicking on an Outlook Calendar invite. Oh yes, and did I mention this was the firstpublic demo of VoIP and Video on a Windows Phone? Derek sure did.
  • Lync on Android -- the capabilities are the same as on the Windows 8 phone, but the look and feel is a little more "Android-like." For example, the menu buttons follow a familiar Android paradigm, laid out above the window in focus.
  • Lync on iPhone -- as on the Windows and Android devices, we saw working VoIP and Video, but with a distinct "iFriendly" interface.
  • Lync on iPad -- while the smartphone demos focused on VoIP and video, Derek demonstrated a tablet-friendly layout and, more importantly, the ability to view application and desktop sharing.
  • Lync on Windows 8 -- for those of you familiar with the Windows 8 Skype app, you will notice some distinct similarities with the Windows 8 Lync app. By "similarities," I mean the apps look identical to me. Derek went deep into the Windows 8 Lync experience, bouncing between contacts, digging into an org chart, retrieving voice mails, and joining Lync conferences -- directly -- from the app. While Microsoft is delivering cross-platform functionality, a Windows 8 user will benefit from a much richer and more integrated experience within the Microsoft ecosystem. Unfortunately, the one "goof" in the demo occurred when a Windows 8 microphone driver got confused and wouldn't join the call with audio and video enabled. However, we did see group IM.
  • Lync Web App -- the updated Lync Web App allows a participant who does not have a Lync client to join a Lync conference as a full participant, including instant messaging, VoIP, video, and desktop sharing experience. Tony used a Mac for this demo.
  • Skype Federation -- as expected, Tony showed off Lync-to-Skype federation, grabbing a Skype user in his contact list, then starting an instant message session, and escalating to a VoIP call.
  • Lync Room System (LRS) -- the biggest announcement at this conference, hands down, was the unveiling of the Microsoft Lync Room System client. The LRS client effectively bridges the gap between the desktop- and roombased collaboration experiences, providing a familiar end-to-end workflow that spans both environments. Scheduling, joining, and participating in a Lync conference follows a consistent paradigm, whether you are participating from your desktop, mobile device, or a new room-based Lync client.

The discerning reader will note that I have intentionally left the word "video" out of the LRS "plug" so far -- by design. Indeed, an LRS system successfully delivers Lync video into a conference room. Microsoft's stated goal, however, is to enable barrier-free collaboration, allowing users to participate via the appropriate "mode" or type of collaboration based on meeting context, their location, and the device(s) they are on. The ability to share text, audio, video and / or content is a very important set of collaboration elements. An LRS system is positioned to bring any and all of these communications into the boardroom with a familiar Lync workflow and experience.

To enable this experience, Microsoft has included an LRS reference architecture that defines what all LRS-compliant systems must include (touch-screen monitors, a wideangle video camera, a "locked-down" PC appliance, a control tablet, etc.). The vendors that announced pending LRS product launches (all coming Q2 2013 or later) included Crestron, LifeSize, Smart Technologies and Polycom. In coming weeks look for a Wainhouse Research On Demand research note dedicated to the LRS announcements that will include an additional layer of detail regarding the reference architecture and each vendor's solution.

Finally, Microsoft revealed its 18-month roadmap. At a high level, the roadmap includes Lync Online Quarterly Updates (a "much faster release schedule" based in part on the Windows Store technology); Lync Server Release Q2 2014 ( the next major incremental Lync release); Enterprise Voice in Lync Online (this could mean integration with Skype's telephony experience and / or a larger number of Lync-certified voice providers delivering telephony to an Office 365 user); Structured Meetings in Lync Online and Lync Server (perhaps bringing back those handy event-like features that didn't make it from Live Meeting into Lync desktop and app sharing); Video for Skype-Lync Connectivity ("sometime" within the next 18 months we will see native video between Lync and Skype endpoints -- of course, if you need this integration sooner, you can always call Blue Jeans Network or NextPlane); and interop with 3rd-party video conferencing endpoints (no detail provided).

What Bill thinks: This was a successful event from an analyst's point of view. As the UC guy, it's great to see a full event dedicated to the UC experience. That said, there was a ton of emphasis on the Skype experience -- consumerization, UI familiarity, cross platform availability -- all of which will benefit the end user. Microsoft's core value proposition to the Enterprise, however, is not a sea of Skype users -- it is an end-to-end communications ecosystem that includes an identity engine and central directory (AD), email (Exchange), content creation (Office), content management (SharePoint), realtime communications including presence, IM, audio, video, data sharing, and conferencing (Lync) -- all tightly integrated and available across the user's preferred devices. Making it easier and more intuitive to interact across these broad layers of the communications ecosystem is the name of the game here. Replicating a familiar experience between Office apps -- with which 1 billion users are familiar -- in the Lync environment is a very logical place for Microsoft to focus. I believe it is doing so, regardless of the current hype surrounding Skype.

Missing from the talk track was anything related to social enterprise. It would have been nice to have the team at least acknowledge Yammer as a target platform for future integration. Because it was not mentioned, we believe any related integration will fall outside of the immediate 18-month window. That feels late to me, considering the growing emphasis on social we see from both competitors and mid-to-large enterprises.

On the other hand, I am really excited about a few key things that I saw at this conference. Specifically, the advent of the Lync Room System, and the tight integration Derek showed between Microsoft Outlook, OneNote, and Lync. The Lync Room System has the potential to eliminate historic barriers that have limited group video to serving as a narrow method of communications, making group video easier to schedule, join, and moderate, and making content sharing a more natural part of room-based collaboration. The Office and OneNote integration, on the other hand, can make group collaboration more effective -- making it easier to include traditional "best practices" like meeting agendas, notes, and action items. While technologies and solutions like those that were discussed at the Lync Summit can't guarantee better collaboration, they certainly play a role -- and the more functional and intuitive the tools are, the easier it will be for users to collaborate more effectively.

Bill HaskinsBill Haskins is Senior Analyst at Wainhouse Research.

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