Microsoft is talking about its upgraded Lync unified communications platform, revealing client support for more devices, server features for better meetings and collaboration as well as integration with the peer-to-peer voice and video service Skype.
While it is clearly a good UC choice for customers with needs that align with Lync's strengths, it's not yet a platform that can jump in readily to replace traditional PBXs in environments heavily reliant on traditional desktop phones, experts say.
BACKGROUND: Microsoft Lync: What you need to know
Still, Lync is getting closer and its new features are bringing it into closer parity with UC leaders such as Cisco and Avaya, they say.
In touting upgrades to Lync 2013 - no release date has been set - Microsoft highlights its adoption of H.264 scalable video coding (SVC), a video codec standard that makes it relatively simple to display video on a range of devices, meaning Lync can support participants on screens ranging from smartphones to room displays, says BJ Haberkorn, director of product marketing, Microsoft Lync.
In addition, video displays by Lync clients has been upgraded to show up to five participants on screen at the same time, an improvement from having just the active talker on displayed. The view of those five is optimized depending on the number of participants and what other conference tools are being used.
Lync 2013 adds voice and video over IP for all devices, meaning that a device connected to a Wi-Fi network can participate in audio and video calls despite being disconnected from a traditional phone link. So users equipped with smartphones and tablets can conference over IP networks.
This is especially important to iPad users, he says, because the devices don't support cellular phone networks. So they can join conferences, register presence and instant message other Lync participants.
The latest Lync client supports Windows 8 with a reworked interface that embraces touchscreens, which he refers to as the Windows 8 paradigm.
Peer-to-peer voice and video service Skype is federated with the upcoming Lync server. That means a corporate user working off a Lync enterprise network could provide and receive presence information with users of Skype. They could also establish audio calls with Skype users, but not video calls. Microsoft has that ranked as the next feature it will work on after the initial release of Lync 2013, Haberkorn says.
Last summer, Microsoft added Lync to Phone, a service that lets Lync users complete calls to and receive calls from the public phone network using the Lync Online Client. Such services are available only in the U.S. and U.K. through third-party public phone network providers.
Microsoft is pushing Lync to the application developers to include UC tie-ins to the applications they write. An app could include links to information about parties listed in the user's address book and enable connecting with them directly from the application.
Microsoft has already done this with many of its productivity applications in Office where communications can be tapped via what is known as a rich content card that lists contacts' name, email, phone, instant messaging and presence information. That can include information about others sharing documents via SharePoint in the SkyDrive cloud.
For example, OneNote is better integrated within Lync meetings for taking notes, and within Outlook it is simpler to send invitations to meetings.
When Lync is upgraded, it will have clients for PC desktops including Windows 8, Macs, iOS, Windows Phone and Android. That will support tablets - used mainly within organizations - as well as smartphones.
Lync's look will be streamlined, cutting out the chrome that is now regarded as visual clutter, and making the overall look in step with what has been done to Office applications.
All this adds up to an improved Lync, but one that still isn't for everybody, says Phil Edholm, president and principal at PKE Consulting.
The reason is that not all businesses have uniform communications needs. He divides workers into three groups: knowledge, information and services, Edholm says.
The knowledge workers, such as engineers or financial analysts, are the ones that need the wide array of features UC can provide such as conferencing, collaboration, instant messaging and presence to get their jobs done. They don't rely on strict business processes as much as the other two categories of workers, but they need to communicate a lot with each other.
They also need to communicate with information workers who do rely on business processes and who need sometimes to communicate with knowledge workers. An example: a contact center worker who uses set business processes to finalize sales but who occasionally needs to talk to a subject matter expert - a knowledge worker - to supply information to a customer before a sale can be closed, Edholm says.
Service workers, such as delivery truck drivers, use information to direct their tasks, but don't need a UC infrastructure to do so.
"Lync is a toolset, and you need to decide who needs the tools," Edholm says, and sometimes that means deploying it to a select group
For instance, a Scandinavian police organization client of Edholm's had 30,000 workers only 3,000 of whom were knowledge workers. Those 3,000 needed unified communications, but most of the rest didn't, leading the organization to install Lync for some but not all.