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Microsoft collaboration tools: Is Lync ready for business?

Enterprises like Microsoft collaboration tools for their feature-rich UC, but they wonder if Lync's voice and video reliability is enterprise-grade.

There are many feature-rich collaboration tools to choose from, but not every unified communications or collaboration product is enterprise-ready. The bells and whistles of new and innovative features -- like instant messaging, presence and screen sharing during video conferences -- may appeal to some businesses, but other organizations are more concerned with having a collaboration vendor that gets the basic but critical business communication features right -- like voice and video.

Many enterprises are investing in Microsoft collaboration tools for business communications. Microsoft has been a leader in collaborative applications and social business functions, such as Yammer and SharePoint, but the vendor has left enterprise customers wondering whether Lync's voice and video are reliable enough for critical business communications, especially because other unified communications (UC) and collaboration heavyweights -- like Cisco and IBM -- are vying for the same customers.

Microsoft collaboration tools: Is Lync ready for business-critical communications?

Despite having a leading UC offering, Microsoft leaves out several important collaboration elements that enterprises consider critical today, including phones, video endpoints, and voice and video gateways. "Many users still maintain proven communications systems -- like the deskphone -- even in cases where they are using collaboration applications on their desktops," said Michael Smith, senior director of marketing for collaboration applications at Cisco.

Microsoft declined to comment on its voice and video strategy moving forward with Lync, but noted growth in its Lync 2013 voice deployment numbers.

Not every UC vendor has to have a PBX replacement to appeal to business customers, but consistent and dependable voice and video services are at the top of every UC wish list. "There are certain times for any business when it's really important to have a highly reliable, high-quality communications experience," Smith said.

The Vancouver, Wash.-based Washington State School for the Blind (WSSB) has deployed a Polycom video infrastructure and Lync together, for a complete solution. Administrators at the school were looking for a reliable voice and video solution that would allow one of their high school math teachers to teach students remotely from another city, said Sherry Hahn, digital research and curriculum coordinator at WSSB.

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The school originally chose a Polycom video conferencing system on laptops, with screen readers and Braille displays for learning, but the school wanted to allow for more teacher-student interaction, Hahn said. "With our old video conferencing system, I was just a talking head -- I had very little interaction with my students, and I couldn't see what they were working on," said Robin Lowell, a high school math teacher at WSSB.

Her math class uses Microsoft Lync for video conferencing, desktop sharing, and instant messaging for one-on-one communications, whiteboarding capabilities for lessons, and file transfers for homework for a fully interactive classroom for the math students.

Having access to reliable communications is critical to Lowell, who lives 170 miles away from WSSB. "I really rely on Lync to transport me to the school every day. I have access to not only my students, but I can feel secure that I will be able to have these important daily conversations with other teachers and administration as well," she said.

UC requirements vary by customer

While Lync's collaboration features fit well into some businesses and their unique use cases, whether they rely on Lync's voice and video capabilities for critical communications will depend on the customer's requirements, said Rob Arnold, senior industry analyst at San Antonio-based Frost & Sullivan Inc.

Microsoft Lync is striving to become a PBX replacement, and will run into competition from UC vendors with telephony hardware -- like Cisco and Siemens -- and traditional PBX vendors with a "voice first" approach, like ShoreTel, Mitel and Avaya, Arnold said. "I think maturity is a concern for some customers. Lync 2010 was the first real iteration of Microsoft's UC portfolio that tried to be a full PBX replacement," he said.

A mature voice and video platform will consider its partners' and customers' demand for additional features and enhanced capabilities over time. While Microsoft Lync may still be in the early stages, the vendor will continue to enhance its voice and video capabilities in future releases.

"In the meantime, not every customer needs all the features that a full PBX offers, and if they do need more than what Lync provides, partners are available to help extend that feature set," Arnold said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, News Writer, and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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