Lync Launched: Microsoft Officially Unveils Latest UC Challenger

Microsoft Office

Microsoft Lync, which is available in a trial download to anyone and will be available to business customers on Dec. 1 in 38 languages and 150 countries, weaves together enterprise VoIP, instant messaging and presence with Web, audio and videoconferencing and other collaboration tools. It's the culmination, said Microsoft executives, of a communications vision that began years ago with Office Communication Server 2007 and the idea that a software package would displace the IP PBX over time.

"The era of the PBX, folks, is over," said Gurdeep Singh Pall, corporate vice president, Microsoft Lync & Speech Group.

Pall and several Microsoft executives presented Lync at an event in New York Wednesday that featured, among other things, a surprise appearance by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates via a Lync videoconference.

"I think the importance of unified communications is far stronger today than it was when we started this path," said Gates, who added that it was "very timely" that Microsoft made a big bet in UC given the surge of interest in mobile devices and collaboration.

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"This is a new era of communication and data collaboration when you think about how Lync fits into the broad office strategy," said Chris Capossela, senior vice president, Information Worker Product Management Group at Microsoft. "Our mission is to deliver the best productivity experience across the PC, the phone and the browser."

What's crucial, the executives explained, is that Lync is designed to fit "like a glove" -- that is, interoperate seamlessly -- with Office, Exchange, Sharepoint and the other key elements of Microsoft's software portfolio.

Pall and Capossela demonstrated Lync capabilities for several scenarios, including presence updates, live videoconferencing using a video system from Polycom and interactive whiteboards from SMART technologies, and calls via Lync's softphone. During communications sessions, Pall said, users can switch devices mid-communication, and easily select them via a drop-down menu in Lync's interface.

Lync also works in home office and consumer-centric scenarios, the executives explained, showing how Lync integrates with Windows Live Messenger. There's also a Lync feature in development for Microsoft's Kinect video game system, Capossela said, that'll be called Video Kinect and will be delivered to all Kinects as a seamless update.

The cross-platform element is critical, said Pall, indicating that Lync works with PCs and Macs, browsers (Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer) and desk phones. Mobile integration is coming soon; specifically, Lync will be available for Windows Phones and Apple's IPhone in 2011, with other endpoints to follow.

"Lync is ready to replace all legacy PBXes you have," Pall said.

Along with Lync's release is a single set of APIs for developers, Pall said, as is a device and partnering ecosystem. Microsoft is designating Lync-compatible devices with the likes of HP, Nokia and Dell for PCs, Jabra and Plantronics for headsets and webcams with Logitech. Pall said Microsoft will focus on global system integrator partners like HP and Dimension Data to deploy Lync in scale, and also a broad mix of service provider partners and ISVs.

One of its most important partnerships, Pall noted, is with Polycom, with whom Microsoft recently said it would partner more tightly for product development and marketing. Polycom itself announced Wednesday that its HDX series telepresence systems and UC Intelligent Core Infrastructure are fully interoperable with Lync, and that multiple Polycom UC endpoints, including the CX500 and CX600 devices, and the CX3000 IP conference phone, are also Lync-optimized.

"Open standards and interoperability are something we both bring to the party and differentiate ourselves," said Andy Miller, Polycom's president and CEO, who also made an appearance at the New York launch event Wednesday.

Microsoft's future Lync plans include a Lync Online release for Office 365, its cloud-based services and hosted software offering.