Microsoft/Skype: Once skeptical UC pros reassessing enterprise Skype

The Microsoft/Skype deal is prompting UC pros who were once enterprise Skype skeptics to give the VoIP provider a second look now that an established UC vendor is at the helm.

Skype has been clamoring to alter its public image as a strictly consumer player and gain a foothold in the enterprise, but unified communications (UC) pros have hesitated to lay out the welcome mat. Enterprise UC pros consistently cite concerns about quality, reliability, security and support as reasons to avoid enterprise Skype adoption, but the $8.5 billion Microsoft/Skype deal stands to dramatically change that.

Enterprise Skype skeptics are giving the Internet VoIP and video conferencing provider a second look, thanks to Microsoft’s clout in enterprise UC.

Ashish Kudsia uses Skype at home without hesitation to make voice and video calls to his parents in India. But as global IT director at Christie Digital Systems, a visual projector and technology manufacturer, he has resisted ongoing end user requests to support it at Christie—a company with lofty standards for video quality, counting AT&T, AMC Theaters, Pixar Animation Studios, Sony Picture Studios and, yes, Microsoft, among its customer base.

"I have gotten umpteen requests to consider it seriously," Kudsia said. "I didn't want to say no ... but for business, we have WebEx, and we have been using WebEx extensively for quite some time now. For requests [for personal use during business travel], we cannot roll out WebEx. It's a business tool ...  and I had to kind of say, 'I'm sorry, I understand, but I cannot roll the dice [with Skype].'"

As a result, Kudsia had been evaluating other desktop video conferencing products that met his needs. But as he prepares to upgrade his legacy Office Communications Server (OCS) to Lync Server 2010, news about the potential Microsoft/Skype merger put Kudsia's roadmap on hold.

"We [were evaluating] something that can compete with Skype, but I'm not deploying that now because I would like to see what Microsoft does with Skype," he said. "We can still wait six to nine months to see what Microsoft's plans are ... [because] I definitely think Skype has evolved into a very serious player."

Microsoft has provided few details about how Skype would work with Lync, but Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer and Skype CEO Tony Bates indicated that Lync would be able to federate with Skype.

Direct access via Lync to Skype's millions of global users will be a victory for UC pros who have struggled with inter-company desktop video conferencing, according to Irwin Lazar, vice president and service director at Nemertes Research. That access will be even more attractive to contact centers, he said.

"If I'm a Lync customer, this is definitely great news," Lazar said. "As Microsoft tries to win business away from Cisco and Avaya, being able to connect Microsoft's UC platform to Skype will be a big selling point."

As part of its push into the enterprise, Skype has struck numerous partnerships with other UC vendors. LifeSize recently announced its ability to natively federate with Skype, and Skype and Citrix announced a joint partnership at Enterprise Connect this year regarding Citrix's GoToMeeting conferencing service. Avaya has publicly announced its intentions to federate its Aura platform with Skype's video conferencing, presence and IM by the end of the year. Microsoft also has existing partnerships with video conferencing and telepresence vendors, including Polycom and Cisco Systems.

Neither Microsoft nor Skype have commented on what will happen to the tangled web of partnerships, but those vendors have indicated in prepared statements this week that they intend to keep those relationships in place.

However, the friction between competitors will likely cause some partnerships to dissolve, Lazar said. Microsoft is unlikely to keep Skype's relationship with Avaya because of its push to make Lync into a soft PBX, he said. Meanwhile, Polycom's products don't exactly compete with Skype's services, which will likely leave that partnership intact, Lazar said.

Microsoft deal could be 'death knell' or savior of enterprise Skype

David Wagner, infrastructure manager at ePromos.com, an online retailer, has standardized on Skype-Business Version for desktop video conferencing and has deployed VoSKY, a gateway to connect his legacy phone system to Skype. But ePromos is a small business, and Wagner had his doubts that Skype could scale to and meet the demands of large enterprise customers.

If executed well, the Microsoft/Skype deal would change his mind, Wagner said. However, he acknowledged that the acquisition seemed more of a consumer play by Microsoft—partly to compete with Google—which concerns him about where that will leave Skype Enterprise, the provider's business unit that serves Skype's business customers.

"That said, Microsoft excels at the enterprise, and ... enterprise is where Skype is weak," said Wagner, who has not deployed OCS or Lync. "Bottom line: It's too soon to tell, but this could either be the death knell for Skype in the enterprise or just the boost it needs."

Andrew Davis, senior partner at Wainhouse Research LLC, said Microsoft's stewardship may inspire more confidence in enterprise Skype adoption among UC pros—provided that Microsoft successfully and suitably federates it with Lync.

"Skype has always had this attitude or persona of being kind of a renegade. Look at how they started: They said, 'Hey, use free voice!' That must've pissed off every carrier in the world," Davis said. "But that's not what Microsoft is. Their look is probably going to be a lot more business-friendly."

Could Skype make Lync into a worse product?

Meanwhile, other UC pros were intrigued by the Microsoft/Skype merger but uncertain about how it would affect the future of enterprise Skype adoption.

Scott Bolser, messaging and collaboration team leader at Children's Hospital Boston, is upgrading his OCS servers to Lync and said he is "curious" about how Microsoft may use Skype's technology to improve Lync's desktop video conferencing client.

Lync's desktop video conferencing client only displays the active speaker in a multipoint call, but users want to see all participants during a session, Bolser said. Other video conferencing vendors sell products that can enable that feature, but Bolser said he did not want to make any additional investments. Instead, he deployed Adobe Connect for Web and video conferencing.

"The video conferencing within Lync has a lot of room for improvement, so the intellectual property Skype owns will hopefully help the experience," he said.

Although access to Skype's millions of users via Lync will be the key selling point for many IT organizations, Bolser said he has no interest in federating Lync with other hospitals and research institutes.

"Some people still use Skype here, but we're going to push them toward our Adobe Connect platform because we own it and control the security," he said. "Hopefully, if [Microsoft uses Skype's technology to] build additional functionality into the Lync product, they use it to make Lync better instead of farming it out ... as a [Software as a Service] SaaS product instead of an on-premises product."

A few years ago, Nemertes found that about 40% of enterprise IT pros it surveyed had blocked Skype due to security concerns, Lazar said. Those concerns around enterprise Skype have dissolved, and more UC pros, like Bolser, are concerned about Microsoft's ability to execute the merger successfully, Lazar said.

"I think [enterprises] have overcome some of those fears [about Skype]. The concern I hear more of is: Microsoft doesn't have a really good reputation of assimilating [its acquisitions]," Lazar said. "That's the bigger concern I'm hearing from enterprises—that Microsoft is going to screw this up."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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