Last week, as expected, Microsoft introduced the new business editions of Office 365. This launch followed closely after the Microsoft Lync Conference the previous week, so it's worth highlighting that the version of Lync Online included in the latest Office 365 editions will be Lync 2013. Perhaps the question is whether companies are ready to seriously consider the cloud for unified communications (UC) deployments -- and whether Lync 2013 in Lync Online will give customers enough to really consider it to meet their UC needs.
One of the big announcements at the Lync Conference was the integration of Lync into the Skype division of Microsoft. As two major communications platforms, the move certainly makes a lot of sense. Skype has primarily been a consumer-driven product, but Skype division president Tony Bates used his part of the opening keynote to talk about how the combination of these platforms creates a communications environment centered on people that spans home and work life.
"We're at 300 million-plus users of Skype, so we know how to scale the endpoint of communication, we know how to bring that across multiple endpoints," Bates said. Lync itself is already integrated with Microsoft Exchange Server and the Office suite, including SharePoint. "As we bring those things together, we're creating the future," Bates said. "We're the ones who can deliver, from that living room scenario all the way across the mobile parts of your life into the boardroom. And we're a hundred percent committed to that."
The promise of Lync-Skype integration is that you can have seamless communication between the two, including voice, IM, shared contacts, and presence information. Not all of this functionality is available yet, but it's in the immediate road map; according to a Lync Team Blog post, most of these features should be arriving by June 2013 -- and they'll be available both for on-premises Lync deployments as well as Lync Online users. The post also notes that video calling is the "next priority" to add to this Lync-Skype integration.
The ability for Lync to communicate with Skype as an endpoint, and vice versa, is significant from a business perspective. Lync is a full-featured UC platform, with many built-in collaboration features -- and as such, it also requires an elaborate infrastructure and possibly specialized knowledge if you want to implement features such as VoIP calling in your environment. Naturally, not every business will choose to roll out Lync as a result. However, Skype can be implemented by pretty much anyone because it's a cloud service: They're worrying about that infrastructure piece for you.
Of course, if you choose Office 365 with Lync Online, Microsoft is handling the whole Lync infrastructure for you. "Moving all this in an environment that is in the cloud can help a lot -- if the cloud is right for you as an organization," said Giovanni Mezgec, general manager for Lync product marketing. One of the drawbacks of Lync Online as a UC platform to date has been the inability to use it for Enterprise voice; that's been a feature available only to on-premises deployments. However, Microsoft announced, as part of the Lync road map, that Enterprise voice would come to Lync Online within the next 18 months.
For large enterprises that have the ability to negotiate a dedicated instance of Lync Online (rather than the off-the-shelf shared version), voice is already included, according to Mezgec. Adding this feature for all customers gives yet another reason to consider Office 365. Traditionally, it's been the Exchange Server component of Office 365 that businesses look at first when considering Office 365. A company's email system is typically an easy choice to outsource to the cloud; although it's an integral part of any business, the day-today tasks of running an email system aren't what most businesses are focused on. Now perhaps it's time to consider the rest of your communications infrastructure in the same light.
The questions that remain are whether an online platform such as Lync can perform up to the standards required for your business and provide the collaboration and meeting experiences you would expect of an on-premises solution. As for the Microsoft platform, Mezgec said, "Our things are basically done to ensure that the experiences that happen in real-life meetings are still possible online." I'm sure a lot of people will be watching closely over the coming months to see if Microsoft delivers on the road map promises they've made for Lync and UC in the cloud.
Learn More: 2013 Promises To Be a Big Year for Lync