“Our industry does not respect tradition – it only respects innovation.”
            – Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft

There is no denying that Microsoft Lync is experiencing explosive growth as a unified communications solution for organizations large and small. From IM and presence to full enterprise voice and HD video conferencing, Lync provides a total communications solution.

Last week Microsoft held its 2nd Annual Lync Conference in Las Vegas. This conference nearly doubled in size from 2013 when it was held in San Diego. This massive increase in attendance is a strong endorsement of Lync’s growth and presence in the market.

At this year’s conference, newly named Skype and Lync VP Gurdeep Singh Pall took to the stage to deliver this year’s keynote address. From the beginning there was a clear message that Lync and Skype are truly coming together. The presentation began with a look at the growth both Lync and Skype have been experiencing. One particularly amazing statistic was that one third of all global long distance calling occurs via Skype.

Lync has become Microsoft’s fastest growing business unit with yearly revenues now exceeding $1 billion and the business unit has seen 38 consecutive quarters of double digital growth. Additionally, 60% of enterprises have or are deploying Lync. The focus on the conference then shifted to some of the latest product and technology updates. Derek Burney, Corporate of Vice President of Strategic Relations and Solutions for Lync and Skype, took the stage to conduct the demos. He focused on several key areas:

Mobility:
Lync now supports iOS, Android (now both smartphones and tablets), Windows, and Mac OS X. In a matter of moments, Burney created a meeting with every compatible device in one session. Key features now available in Lync mobile include:

  • Content viewing (native for Powerpoint)
  • Invite additional participants from the app
  • Anonymous Join

Microsoft is sending a clear message in that mobility and cross platform support is incredibly important to their strategy.

Interoperability:
As part of the demo, Burney was able to invite a TANDBERG (clearly didn’t want to mention Cisco’s name) video conferencing system right into a Lync session. The connection was seamless and the quality was quite good.

Skype to Lync:
At the 2013 conference, audio and IM between Lync and Skype clients was demoed. Burney brought things up another notch and demoed a video call between Skype and Lync. The message here is that connecting an enterprise platform to a consumer platform creates incredible opportunities for B2C communication. This functionality will be released later this year.

Embedding Video Anywhere
As many other communications vendors have presented, this demo featured a website (in this case for a healthcare network) that allowed the user to have a real-time video conversation right on the site. Most vendors have chosen to go with the open standards WebRTC protocol to achieve embedded video. Microsoft has chosen not to embrace WebRTC and instead has created its own JavaScript APIs to achieve this. It should be interesting to see how this impacts the adoption of WebRTC.

After the technology demo ended, two large scale Lync customers (Herb Keller, VP and CTO of Adventist Healthcare & Dean Leung, CIO of Holland & Knight) were invited on stage to discuss their particular use case. This discussion begins at around 42 minutes in the video and is a fascinating look at how two very different types of organizations have integrated Lync into their business models and workflows.

In closing, Gurdeep Singh Pall discussed Microsoft’s vision of communications for the future. This includes total integration across all platforms with context. Meaning, systems understanding who is involved in meetings and providing context based searching and alerts (see 01:05 in the video). Finally, Microsoft’s goal is to have 1 billion users of their communications platforms in the next ten years. They are calling this next era, Universal Communications.

We live in some amazing times with amazing technology and tools. Microsoft’s goals are ambitious but have the potential to connect people like never before!

The-Lync-Integration-Challenge

Microsoft Lync continues to gain traction as a viable desktop communications solution that encompasses IM, presence, voice, video and more. Millions of users are now using it as a daily tool and millions more are coming on-line every year.

One of the challenges with Lync is how to integrate it into the rest of a collaboration environment. Microsoft has done a great job of creating a solution that can incorporate as many users as possible; however, there are limitations in how Lync can speak to solutions from other companies, such as Cisco and Lifesize. As the ubiquity of Lync has increased, so has the desire for customers to integrate it into their company work flow. A countless number of organizations have responded with solutions that provide integration of Lync to nearly any other type of solution.

Blue Jeans Network
Blue Jeans has developed integration for Lync 2010 & 2013 that enables users to connect to a virtual meeting room that can interoperate with nearly any other solution out there. If an organization uses Cisco or Lifesize for video, all users can simply connect to Blue Jeans and meet. In addition, the service supports the sharing and receiving of content within the Lync client.

Polycom
Polycom has closely aligned with Microsoft and manufactures dozens of video conferencing and audio conferencing products that natively integrate with Lync. This allows Lync users to call a Polycom system simply by finding it in their buddy list. In addition, as Lync continues to grow as a viable alternative to a standard PBX, Polycom is providing their award winning line of phones with native Lync integration. This includes presence and the ability to login with a Lync identity so the phone is aware of whom the user is.

Acano
Acano is a new start-up that has created a highly scalable conferencing solution that supports video, voice, and web. Their solution provides enterprise grade integration to Lync 2010 and 2013 that enables content sharing, video, and more. Acano also has a web-based client that makes it easy for anyone to join a meeting that includes participants using Lync as well as standards based video conferencing or even those on a voice call.

Microsoft
In the two years since Microsoft closed on its $8.5 billion acquisition of Skype, they have been working hard to integrate the over 300 million users into all areas of their product offering. This includes Outlook.com, Sharepoint, and more. Most recently, Microsoft has enabled Skype to Lync audio calling and instant messaging. Eventually native video calling will be enabled. As a result, tens of millions of Lync users will be able to seamlessly communicate with Skype.

Lync is expanding rapidly and the market is responding with many solutions to extend the reach of Lync beyond an organization’s internal teams. As organizations evaluate Lync deployments, they now have many options to consider when it comes to integrating Lync into their already established systems and workflow. That flexibility will only accelerate Lync’s adoption at every level.

The proliferation of unified communications solutions, such as Microsoft Lync, Cisco Jabber and IBM Sametime, has extended collaboration to employees around the world. These solutions offer many advantages, including ease of use and enhanced mobility; however, they also present a few key challenges including moving the UC experience from the desktop into the conference room.

Trying to connect a team of local participants with remote participants can be difficult using a desktop video solution. Crowding around a colleague’s PC gets extremely uncomfortable, not to mention it deteriorates the audio and visual quality of the meeting. On the other hand, having each participant join individually can become overwhelming and push the limits of cloud video bridging solutions.

After hearing these issues, our engineering team created a unique solution to easily bring unified communications to the conference room. UC Group systems are configurable, PC-based solutions that allow an organization to extend their desktop video client into a conference room setting. Anything from screen sharing to video conferencing can be accomplished with the click of a button.

Video is obtained through a PC card located in the display or from a local laptop or PC connection and displayed on the screen. Essentially, end users would connect to a video call in the same way and with the same application they would use on their computer. Then participants partake in a video conference with audio and visual quality similar to that of a traditional video conference room.

Enhanced mobility features allow end-users to connect their laptop and wheel the cart between rooms. As a result, any conference room can become a video-enabled room! Plus, with easy content display options, UC Group systems can double as presentation rooms when video is not in use. Additional features include:

  • Power management capabilities that automatically turn the display on and off
  • Fixed or pan/tilt/zoom camera to accommodate smaller or larger groups
  • Table or ceiling microphones for enhanced audio
  • Cisco WebEx integration for webinars or other web conferences
  • Connect up to 25 software or hardware video systems with Multipoint Experience

The UC Room and UC Mobile are platform agnostic and can run on any software video client including Microsoft Lync, Cisco Jabber, Polycom CMA/m100, Skype and Google Video Chat. These solutions enhance an organization’s UC platform or consumer video solution by accommodating larger groups and allowing participants to reap the benefits of a traditional video conferencing room without significant upfront investments.

Why Unify Your Communications - What's In The Box

With all the buzz around unified communications including new product releases, features, acquisitions and more, it’s easy to forget the why of UC and how it can benefit an organization. In this series of posts we will examine some of the key areas of UC and what the business benefit can be.

To understand what UC solutions can do for an organization it is important to understand what features and functions are included in the solutions available today. Some may think of UC as just video conferencing or web conferencing; however, it is a collection of many different technologies that are seamlessly integrated together.

Presence
Presence is a feature that is at the heart of a unified communications solution. It allows a user to communicate their availability (on the phone, away, in a meeting) while also allowing the system to provide location information (in the office, working from home, etc). How many times have you tried to reach a colleague only to learn that they are working remotely and only available on their mobile phone? Presence can provide the information need to connect to someone in the fastest manner possible.

Instant Messaging
Instant messaging makes communicating with a colleague as simple as a point and click. Clicking on a user can initiate a text conversation, similar to a text on your mobile phone that can allow for quick catch ups on key items and to also check availability for meetings down the road.

Audio Conferencing
With UC solutions it is incredibly easily to upgrade an instant messaging discussion to an audio conversation. Simply click on the users name, select the call feature and the application will dial the number stored. These calls can be a point-to-point audio discussion or include multiple audio participants in a session (similar to an audio bridge).  The connection can occur over standard phones or via the UC application directly on the user’s desktop.

Screen and Document Sharing
During an audio or IM conversation it might be necessary for parties involved to share a document or participate in a white boarding session. A UC application can upgrade the interaction by providing a visual content sharing session. Users can view each other’s screen and collaborate on a key document or deliverable together.

Video Conferencing
UC solutions offer the ability for users to meet face to face via video conferencing. All of the UC applications available offer some form of video conferencing. In some cases it may be calls limited to two participants, in other cases it can be large scale multi-party calls. In either case, the power of visual communication is enhanced as each participant can see each other while collaboration.

Mobility
The final major functionality of most UC applications is the ability to access some or all of the functions listed above via a mobile device. This could be a smartphone or a tablet such as the iPad. Either way the goal is to provide a seamless experience whether the user is on their computer or traveling with their mobile device.

It is clear that UC applications offer a robust feature set that can help organizations collaborate in new and exciting ways. Not all UC applications are created equal, so make sure to understand the entire breadth of feature set before moving forward with an implementation.

This post is part of a series on unified communications solutions.

Part Two: What’s Out There?

The last year has been quite interesting with a constantly shifting landscape of social media, visual collaboration and unified communications. Social collaboration, a combination of these, is becoming a significant trend and driving the behavior of key manufacturers and software companies. At the same time, businesses of all sizes are beginning to see social collaboration as a key component of their communications strategy.

Point in case, Cisco announced Cisco WebEx Social earlier this week. Originally marketed under the Cisco Quad brand, WebEx Social is an attempt at 2 key things: 1) Expand the incredibly well known Webex brand into the social enterprise space and 2) Create a “hub” for an organization’s collaboration efforts. At the same time, there are rumors of Microsoft looking to acquire Yammer, another provider of social enterprise software.

Cisco and Microsoft are following suit behind Salesforce.com’s continued expansion of their Chatter social platform, Jive Software’s IPO and popularity (another social software company), and about a dozen or so smaller companies vying for a company’s social business.

The key trend emerging is about interaction and communication. As organizations continue to explore social collaboration, they have to ask themselves a key question. What kind of interactions do we want to foster? Organizations can either focus on internal communications by making sure employees can collaborate in the most effective way possible. Or, they can expand those interactions outside the company, making collaboration with partners, vendors and customers possible.

With those questions answered, a company can look to implement the aforementioned “hub.” With this in place, employees have a single starting point for all of their interactions; they can interact with people through IM, chat, and ultimately launch a web conferencing session, voice call, or video conference. This level of integration provides a seamless way for employees to move from one form of collaboration to another. It provides a new meaning for unified communications and will help drive adoption of the technology in addition to foster a team environment.

At the end of the day, all of these technologies are pretty amazing. But, what are the true business benefits? How do employee interactions increase productivity and aid the bottom line?

For one, the cliché “two minds are better than one” holds true; employee interactions with partners, customers and other employees increase productivity through knowledge sharing. As employees interact, they share different tips, think creatively and produce ideas that can improve products or processes and ultimately drive true innovation. All of these aspects have a direct, and dramatic, impact on a firm’s bottom line.

In the coming weeks we will explore in more detail how these different types of interactions can improve an organization’s performance.  Stay tuned!

This post is part of a series covering the benefits of social collaboration within an organization.

Part Two: Unified Communications, Unified People
Part Three: The Power of Business Partnerships
Part Four: Using Collaboration to Increase Customer Lifetime Value