With Lync, will Microsoft advance the ball on unified communications?

With Lync, will Microsoft advance the ball on unified communications?

Summary: Combining consumer and business communications platforms is nothing new, but the scope of Microsoft's work in this area could tilt the playing field.


You've got to feel for the unified communications guys.

For years, companies large (Cisco, Polycom) and small (Blue Jeans, Vidyo, Vidtel) have been plowing away at the multi-platform terror that is audio, video and text-based communications. Employees in the enterprise want to communicate whenever and wherever they want, and companies in this space have been scrambling to leap over the technical and corporate hurdles to make it happen. For awhile now, it has been a virtual (see what I did right there?) free-for-all when it comes to conversing with a colleague.


But then Microsoft acquired the popular Skype, in 2011. And then Google rolled out its free and easy-to-use Hangouts -- good enough that we editors use them here at ZDNet HQ. This put a lot of pressure on the established enterprise players and spry startups -- for the former, it's yet another threat to their dominance; for the latter, it's a well-resourced rival. So it comes as no surprise that there has been a degree of discomfort today as Microsoft kicked off its first-ever Lync Conference in San Diego by announcing that it would begin to connect its disparate enterprise and consumer platforms this summer.

The tech giant has made no secret of the move; in fact, it has spent the last several months internally reorganizing to support such a thing. Because let's face it: it ain't unified communications until it's unified, know what I mean?

As befits a connected web of technology, the reaction has been complicated: even as Logitech's LifeSize, Polycom, Blue Jeans and others announce support for Lync, you can feel the hesitation as they see Microsoft's largesse loom overhead. With a deep foothold in both the consumer and enterprise markets, the company's decision could spell the end for several of them. It certainly doesn't help that the Redmond, Wash.-based company still controls a massive number of desktop computers (as well as video game consoles!) and is increasingly plowing resources into its mobile presence.

Ongoing consumerization of the enterprise market has allowed Microsoft, from its consumer perch, to position itself surprisingly well against entrenched enterprise players, at least with regard to the unified communications market. By taking steps to formally connect the two, while controlling a sizeable hardware footprint (from operating system to web browser, across millions of users, across geographies and languages), Microsoft becomes a formidable rival.

Well, as formidable as you can be when your technologies need to interoperate. Unified communications is shaping up, metaphorically speaking, to be a game of street basketball: you can't play without others on the court, but that doesn't mean you can't throw a few dirty elbows when no one's looking.

We are beginning to see that the divide for this technology -- broadly speaking -- is changing to be more along the lines of ecosystem than it is use case. Much like e-mail, shared documents and virtually every other avenue of digital productivity, we're not thinking so much about whether we're at work or home when we use them, just interoperability: Can I launch a video chat with the people already listed on my meeting invite, or do I need to take additional steps? Do I need to use my work computer, or can I do it from the couch? This has always been the main selling point of the smaller companies listed above -- whatever your vendor or device of preference, we'll connect it seamlessly -- but customer acquisition has always been their biggest challenge.

Like 6-ft. 8-in. basketball superstar LeBron James, Microsoft starts with quite an advantage in size and popularity. The question is whether anyone's bold, savvy or nimble enough to outmaneuver it -- or at least daring enough to wait until it makes a costly mistake. Elbows out, boys.

Photo: LeBron stares down the future of unified communications. (David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images)

Topics: Enterprise Software, Consumerization, Microsoft, Unified Comms

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • Microsoft's work in this area could tilt the playing field.

    Yah right, just open up the flood gates for more Malware to get in.............
    Over and Out
    • Rerun!!

      Uh, you said that in 3 other articles. What's the matter? Running out of useless comments to post?

      I would love for these 2 services to be unified!
    • Right on target!

      And as your name describes that's Enough Said on that subject!
      I Am Galactus
  • If Microsoft is LeBron...

    Durant is Blue Jeans

    LeBron forces his will upon his competitors through pure power

    KD is equally dominant but in a system where he leverages all the assets around him. Plays well with others.

    Does this mean Polycom is Garnett? ie strong career winding down

    And Kobe = Cisco? Dominant still, but clock ticking
    • this is the best zdnet comment

      of all time. ALL TIME.
    • Except that, this is not basketball, and it's all about business and

      competition in the business world, where tactics like those found in the basketball court, aren't even considered.

      The business world is more hardball than what you'll find in a basketball court. You come in expecting that you have team players ready to back you up, then you won't be around the game for long. It's a dog-eat-dog world with business. A basketball talent is just looking for the next paycheck, and a bigger paycheck after he gets traded or his contract runs out. With businesses, it's more about the much longer strategies, and the bigger strategies. The bigger and longer term strategies would have some businesses disappearing, and with basketball, your business and your game is dead, if the competition disappears.

      The basketball analogy is nice, but, very flawed.
      • Huh?

        "The business world is more hardball than what you'll find in a basketball court."

        Hardball? That's a baseball analogy, so I guess you're saying business is more like baseball than basketball?

        Business is more like a team sport. Every good business has departments that all perform different functions and yet perform for the good of the enterprise. Continuing with the basketball analogy, just as good teams have specialists that come in to perform their special skill sets (rebounder, passer, etc) so business has specialists also. You certainly wouldn't want your point guard to post up against the opponent's center just as you wouldn't want your marketing department to run IT.
        • Neither the basketball, nor the baseball analogy work in business,

          and my use of "hardball" was more about how competition is about winning at any cost.

          I did not use any of the baseball tactics or plays or batting and positions analogies to make my point. I used one word, that being "hardball", but not necessarily intended as an analogy with the game itself. You and others, did go as far as using "game play" and actual players to set up the basketball analogy; I did not.
      • You've hijacked my analogy, man

        ...and then you call it flawed! C'mon. Lame.
        • I did not hijack anything, and your analogy is still flawed...

          Using the word "hardball" is not an analogy, and it's not about the game of baseball.

          Here's the dictionary meaning of "hardball": A no-nonsense attitude in business or politics

          Notice that the above definition is not about a game nor about an analogy related to any game. The origin might come from baseball, but the word has taken on a completely divorced meaning from the game.

          Your analogy still is very flawed and stinks and of no value.
    • Nah,

      Kobe would be a system that appears to be really good but actually undermines interoperability. (He plays for himself and not for his team)
    • I think I have to pay attention to basketball a bit more

      Thanks for the kudos..
  • Lync is outstanding.

    We switched from Ci$co to Lync. It saved an incredible amount of money. Continuing with Cisco would have cost us literally twice as much. We talking savings in the millions over all of our locations. For large corporations such as ours, Cisco wasn't even an option once we got the numbers. The switch didn't go without hiccups (one location wasn't configured properly but a couple hours downtime at one location isn't too bad for anyone who's done a massive switchover like this).

    So now we get a true UC environment for half the cost and 3 times the features. I can't think of the last time I actually picked up the phone to dial anyone. Just off the top of my head we get robust meetings, IM, presence, Phone App, outlook integration, login anywhere phones, etc.

    Cisco needs to up their game because their cost is absurd for the lack of features and integration. Jabber is a nice try, but not anywhere close.
    • Completely agree

      I work for Brocade, a competitor of Cisco, so we never used their stuff anyway and instead had an Avaya VoIP setup. We're switching now, globally, to Lync and it is replacing not just the phones, but our hosted conference calls and video conferencing as well. It is reliable tech and comes with all the features a company needs - big or small.
  • Largess?

    "...you can feel the hesitation as they see Microsoft's largesse loom overhead. ".
    Largess means generosity, a term not usually applied to Microsoft.
    Did you mean "largeness"?
  • Sorry - spelling. largess s.b. largesse.

    • Actually, both are correct...