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

Combining consumer and business communications platforms is nothing new, but the scope of Microsoft's work in this area could tilt the playing field.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

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)

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