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Microsoft’s Lync 2013 Flunks the Unified Communications Opportunity
Josh Greenbaum
MAR 14, 2013 10:03 AM
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Some things are just too good to be true, and Microsoft’s vision for Lync 2013 – its desktop unified communications product – is a good case in point. It’s almost a shame, because rationalizing the many different channels of communication that business users have access to – email, chat, social, video conference, voice – under a single application has enormous potential for optimizing how people collaborate.  And Microsoft’s vision for Lync, as spelled out at its sold-out first-ever Lync conference last month, was a singularly beautiful vision of instant-on, real-time communications enabling amazing feats of collaboration never before possible.

Too bad trying to make this vision happen with the current product set is just a dream – or actually, if my example is any indication – a bloody nightmare. Based on my experience of the last week just trying to wire up Lync with my Office 365 account, Lync isn’t worth the trouble. But finding out just what Lync and Office 365 can do together once they are wired together – a big fat nothing, actually – made the four calls to Lync tech support and the two calls to my ISP’s tech support a complete and utter waste of time.

Why did I bother in the first place? Because I was intrigued by the promises that Tony Bates, the president of Microsoft’s Skype division, and Derek Burney, the SVP of Lync Engineering, gave at the Lync conference keynote. Their basic message was about how Lync could bring unified communications to my Windows 8 desktop and myriad Microsoft and non-Microsoft devices, and I had to find out if it was true. Because if it was, I wanted in: like most people, I spend a lot of time bouncing between different voice, email, chat, and video conference technologies,  all of which I have to access from different apps with no central management and no way to keep track of all my communications channels, much less rationalize their use.  Having a single pane of glass with which to manage all my communications would be a huge time savings, and would definitely lead to some much-needed efficiency as well.

This ability to manage all communications from a single application is the promise of unified communications, one of those market opportunities that I equate with social collaboration – a great theory that lacks a critical mass of equally great, compelling reasons why the enterprise should embrace the theory full force. This is mostly because, like social collaboration, unified communications proponents have tended to heave their technology up on the proverbial enterprise wall in the vain hope that it will stick, despite failing to articulate how unified communications can directly impact specific business processes.

In other words, the pitch for UC has been largely about cool technology without any attempt to tie that technology directly to that class of enterprise problems that keep line of business leaders up at night. UC is not seen as a solution to a problem these business users have: I can assure you that none of them are waking up at 2 am, smacking their foreheads, and saying “unified communications, that’s what’ll save my bacon.”

So, absent a compelling business context that could interest a business user, buying UC has been relegated to the purview of procurement departments who aren’t paid to pay attention to expensive technology-driven fantasies masquerading as strategies. The result – UC is another market that never lived up to its potential.

But I do believe there is more to this market than ignominy: if there was a great UC platform with a great consumer-like user experience, one that could support existing channels as well as new and emerging one, and it was sold by a vendor that understood how to use UC to enhance some key, bedrock business processes, unified communications, or something like it, could become a powerful force for innovation in the enterprise.

So, while I have been skeptical about the promise of UC, when I saw the Lync conference keynote I had to give Microsoft’s new entry a try. Maybe the only company that effectively plays in both the consumer and the business world will have come up with the perfect bridge product that could light a fire under the promise of UC and give this moribund market a good kick in the keister.

I also figured I was probably a good test case for trying to see if Lync can give the market that kick: I run Office 365, Windows 8, and Skype – which are three of the fundamental building blocks that were referenced in the keynote. And I know enough about the enterprise to see how Lync could give UC some much-needed enterprise context.

If only I could have gotten it to work.

As I had three of the building blocks already, all that was needed was Lync 2013, which was downloaded from the Windows 8 store and was immediately dead on arrival, as I couldn’t sign into Lync using my Office 365 credentials. The problem, once I talked to tech support, was that I had to configure the DNS records in my email domain to allow this connection to take place – easy enough if you know how to do it, though any time you need to call tech support you know you’re no longer in the realm of the obvious. And I had to check with my ISP to make sure that I wasn’t going to totally destroy something else (like kill off my email, for example) by making these changes to the arcane innards of my email account.

In the end, getting the DNS record right wasn’t actually that easy, and it took two more calls to Lync and another call to my ISP before I could sign on and open up the Lync screen. That’s a lot of support just to get to the starting gate – and no way to get there without actually talking to a human expert, as searching the Lync support database was useless. (Partly because Microsoft’s byzantine naming conventions make it hard to get past Lync Server, Lync 2010, and all the other Lyncs in order to find information specific to Lync 2013.)

But once I got Lync up and running, I had to place another call to tech support: I couldn’t figure out how to get that great UC experience up and running. I had expected to be able to unify my different communications channels, chat or Skype my contacts from Lync, set up video or conference calls with colleagues, and do all the cool stuff you could see Burney and Bates doing in the keynote.

Wrong, wrong, wrong. What Microsoft doesn’t tell you is that Lync is a walled in community – if the people you want to do the UC thing with aren’t using Lync, you’re SOL: you can’t chat with them, call them, video conference, nothing. Unified communications be damned – Lync can only unify Lync communications. And barely, at that: Skype integration doesn’t come for another couple of months, apparently. To add insult to injury, my attempt to chat with a Microsoft contact whom I know uses Lync returned an error message: Tech support said I needed to email my contact and ask permission to Lync to her. Lync itself couldn’t handle the request.

As for the rest of my contacts, it would nice, at least, if you’re living inside the Lync moat to be able to tell a priori if the person you want to communicate with is a Lync user. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know who in Outlook is also a Lync user. Outlook and Lync aren’t synchronized, so you have  to guess who might have Lync, or wait until someone who uses Lync lets you know they have Lync, or… just not bother using it at all.

Just to further show what a non-starter Lync 2013 is, there’s no way to link Lync to the Outlook contact database, meaning that if you want to use Lync to communicate you have to load your Outlook contacts one by one into the Lync contact database. This forces the user to do double entry contact database management: Once you’ve moved a contact to Lync, Outlook creates a new folder called Lync Contacts, where any changes you make to a Lync contact inside Lync are replicated. But this folder is not synched with the regular Outlook contact information, so those changes aren't propagated to Outlook. This means you get to try to use your brain, or what’s left of it after all this, to keep track of what changed in which contact list and synch them manually. Advil, anyone?

Did I miss something? That’s what I asked the Lync support person when we went through this mess. The answer was no: Microsoft’s attempt at UC for the desktop is pretty much useless as a UC tool, and frankly, as a pure communication tool Apple’s iOS contact database has it beat by a mile – from my iPhone I can do Facetime with other iOS users – iOS can auto-detect those iOS users – and from this one device’s unified user experience I can phone or chat or email anyone in my contact database.  There’s no management layer per se, and a lot of other UC-like features aren’t available in iOS. But then again it’s not marketed as a UC platform, while Lync, which basically can’t do anything, is.

The moral of the story is that Microsoft once again has let its reach exceed its grasp, and its vision for Lync 2013 as a unified communications platform is just a bunch of vision, and a poorly marketed one at that. It’s a shame that there isn’t a desktop product that could do what Lync is supposed to do, because the mess of communications channels on the desktop is worth cleaning up.

At least Microsoft tried to up the ante in the failed UC market by telling a good story at its Lync conference about making communications “fundamental” and “humanized”, with broken-down barriers and lots of “access” and “reach.” Too bad Microsoft forgot that Lync also needed the features that would make those aspirations real.

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