Microsoft Pushes Its Way Into Crowded Unified Communications Market

Microsoft's Lync has evolved into a serious unified communications competitor for enterprises looking to upgrade or adopt a UC platform. In a crowded field where players still struggle with interoperability issues, Lync's integration with Skype is a potentially transformational improvement.

The Lync unified communications (UC) server belongs to that long list of Microsoft enterprise software products that began as a modest offering dismissed by competitors and years later evolved into a solid option for IT departments.

Lync, Microsoft, UC, unified communications

[ Microsoft Lync: The Pros and Cons for Enterprises ]

Largely dismissed as a nonthreat by competitors when it first arrived in 2003 with the name Office Communicator, Lync today has positioned itself as a product that demands attention from enterprises looking to upgrade or adopt a UC platform.

"In the UC landscape, Lync is absolutely a real competitor. It has a full feature set, a customer base, channel partners," says Henry Dewing, a Forrester Research analyst. "Microsoft can deliver the UC services that businesses want today with Lync."

The product, whose latest version is Lync 2013, includes presence, instant messaging, Web meetings, audio chat, video conferencing and IP telephony.

In the crowded UC market, it competes against offerings from vendors including Cisco, IBM, Avaya, Siemens, Alcatel-Lucent, Mitel and ShoreTel.

However, Lync isn't being hailed as a product that stands out from the rest in any significant way nor that is blazing trails of innovation in this UC market.

"It's a good, competitive, traditional UC tool," says Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst with ZK Research.

Mobile Access Biggest Challenges for Lync and Other UC Systems

For example, the UC market is hobbled by poor interoperability between products, especially at the IM and presence levels, Kerravala says.

In addition, UC systems provide access to a partial subset of the collaboration and business software people use, according to Kerravala.

Moreover, despite improvements in mobile access to their software, no UC vendor can claim to have a fully mobile-centric approach to UC today, he adds.

A vendor that makes a breakthrough in those three areas could disrupt the UC market and distance it from the competition, Kerravala says.

Until then, the adoption, engagement with and benefits of having a UC system will remain impacted.

Dewing concurs, saying that UC systems need to provide what he calls "deep business process integration" so that they are available in the context of the tools people work with on a daily basis, such as ERP and CRM applications.

"That's where UC has to get," he says.

Bern Elliot, a Gartner analyst, says it's critical for UC systems to deliver an end-user experience that is intuitive, cohesive and integrated.

"The productivity doesn't happen because now you have video and IM and presence and you can do video conferencing. The productivity is there because all those things are readily usable by your average worker," he says.

Microsoft Says Lync-Skype Integration Will Bring Business Value

Microsoft is satisfied with its recent improvements in the Lync mobile client applications for iOS, Android, Windows 8 and Windows Phone, and says it will continue enhancing them on a rolling basis, according to B.J. Haberkorn, director of product marketing for Lync at Microsoft.

"We've dramatically improved those clients," he says.

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