A one-stop shop for the anywhere enterprise?

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Microsoft’s diverse pieces of enterprise collaboration and communications tools are gradually beginning to fit into place. Microsoft has been revealing how it plans to glue together its voice, video, messaging, presence, social, file synchronization, productivity, collaboration and tasks capabilities into an integrated environment. Furthermore, these tools will be able to work on most devices and across corporate perimeters. To me, this looks like a recipe for the “anywhere enterprise”.

In the last few months, there have been a slew of Microsoft news about bringing Lync, Office and Sharepoint together with Skype, Yammer and Skydrive. These include:

  • Improving enterprise social networking and task management by integrating Yammer and Sharepoint 2013 and Sharepoint Online (and potentially Project and Office Web Apps in the near future);
  • Integrating Yammer more deeply with Lync and Exchange in 2014;
  • Integrating Skype with Lync Server 2010 & 2012 and Office 365, allowing federation of presence, messaging and audio calls between Skype and Lync clients. (What’s interesting here is that Lync users will be able to communicate with customers, partners and outsiders who use Skype. In addition, Lync customers will be able to have some users on Lync and others on Skype);
  • The free Outlook.com version will have Skype embedded, so offering voice, video, email and instant messaging to consumers;
  • The launch of clients for iPads, iPhones and Windows Phone 8 smartphones which connect Skype to Lync;
  • A web app that can be installed in a HTML5 browser that enables devices outside of the corporate infrastructure to connect to Lync meetings;
  • Lync Room System which connects conferencing hardware from multiple vendors;
  • A Lync 2013 service that will feature multi-party HD videoconferencing (using H.264) which supports up to 250 participants per meeting;
  • In Outlook 2013, the People Card collects contact details about a given individual in one place: phone, email, address, company info, but also social media updates and presence.

However, these announcements are not always received with universal acclaim. Some critics argue that Skype is a consumer technology and Lync a corporate one which do not blend well; that Skype and Yammer grew through the freemium model, unlike Microsoft’s cash cows Office, Exchange and Sharepoint; and that Microsoft lacks the focus of dedicated PBX vendors who know all about scalability to tens of thousands of ports.

But to my mind, Microsoft appears to be addressing all these concerns, linking its many products and hopefully creating more than the sum of its parts.

breaking through the voice barrier

Microsoft’s position as a leading unified communications vendor depends on how it replaces or integrates with existing IP-PBXs. If Microsoft can capture this market with its software-approach, it not only provides a new revenue stream, it encourages enterprises to stay with Office and Sharepoint and its other enterprise productivity tools rather than be tempted by Google or SAP or Salesforce, for instance.

And vice-versa: seamless integration with productivity and collaboration apps will encourage enterprises to think of Microsoft as a serious telephony player where otherwise they might not if it faces a straight battle with Cisco, Avaya, Siemens and Alcatel-Lucent.

Some commentators, such as Jamie Libow writing on No Jitter, are convinced that Lync with Enterprise Voice can be a PBX replacement. He writes “The interface is very user friendly, the voice quality is exceptional, and the ability to integrate communications into business processes and applications becomes a reality.” However, other bloggers on No Jitter say that Lync has voice capabilities can be quite complex and enterprises may prefer to plug in Lync-compatible systems from vendors like Mitel or Ayava.

Currently, analysts MZA rank Cisco, NEC, Avaya and Siemens as the most installed IP and TDM telephony vendors in the world (by ports shipped). However, Lync is now number three in the North American IP PBX market and growing.  And Nemertes Research reckons over 10% of US enterprises are now deploying or planning to deploy Microsoft Lync as their IP-PBX, up from 5% in 2012. It’s interesting that Lync is growing in a market which Infonetics says is in decline. It estimates that global TDM & IP PBX market revenues are down 4% year-on-year.

This is partly to do with fiercely competitive pricing, and partly to do with competition from alternative media: the deskphone competes with Skype, Twitter, email, SMS and iPhones. With less use of the old phone system, there is less pressure to replace it.  But if you are going to replace it, it may be more appealing to replace it with something that is more integrated with other communications channels.

As we mentioned before, if use of deskphones is in decline, it is perhaps better to think of Lync not as a replacement PBX, but as way to bringing voice back into the business process. For many staff, the telephone is a tool for sitting silent on group conference calls, while the keyboard is the route into one-to-one communications (email or IM). If voice and video can be more deeply embedded into documents (Word, Excel) or messaging (Skype, Exchange) or project tools (Sharepoint, One Note, Project), combined with presence information, then the more likely we are to start talking again.

a race to own the enterprise

There are many ‘traditional’ vendors with credible unified communications offerings such as Cisco, Avaya, Alcatel and Siemens who want to extend voice into enterprise workflows. Anyone enterprise who has recently invested in an IP-PBX is unlikely to want to swap it out just yet. And vendors from outside of telephony, such as Salesforce, SAP and Google, are also headed for the collaboration space, each with their own take on which elements are most important.

But one thing is clear: owning the entire ecosystem for enterprise workflows is their ambition. Microsoft currently has a bewildering array of consumer and corporate tools for collaboration and communication, available in self-managed and hosted varieties. But we are starting to see these tools brought together, and when the integration is fully realized, Microsoft may prove to be the vendor with the most complete vision.

Stewart

image © Julien Eichinger - Fotolia.com

Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.