Unified Communications has been a passion of mine for over a decade. I left a senior position at Australia’s largest carrier in order to become a minor partner in what was to become one of Australia’s first truly UC-focussed businesses. Flash forward to around 2004 when we got involved in a tender for the complete Voice and Data fit-out of the NSW Institute of Sports (where the likes of Ian Thorpe and Louise Sauvage trained) who were building their new purpose-designed facilities at Sydney Olympic Park. Up to that point, I had primarily relied on voice-vendor supplied UC solutions so it was with some trepidation that I learned that they were really keen on this relatively new Microsoft UC solution called “Live Communication Server”. Whilst a huge fan of Microsoft in general – Windows Server (in all its iterations since 3.1 beta) and MS Messaging (since MS-Mail v1.3) had been my bread and butter throughout the 90s but every encounter I had up to that point of any sort of Voice solution on MS Servers had ranged from terrible to catastrophic. That was until I met Oscar Trimboli (he is the guru of all things Microsoft business related in Australia – look him up!) who was the then head of the local MS-UC business and he gave me a deep-dive into the product and helped me see how it would interact with our chosen Voice and Networking platforms.
Still, we were up against 6 or 7 other tender respondents all of whom represented far more vendor-centric and “mature” solutions than what we proposed. It turns out we won the tender and ended up deploying the first ever fully voice-integrated MS UC solution in Australia. It also made me a complete convert to Microsoft UC (and UM since the release of Exchange 2007), which has been one of my favorite technologies ever since. I spent the next several years banging out LCS, OCS and OCS R2 solutions for organisations large and small but always with Microsoft as the product supplicant to someone else’s VoIP.
Suddenly we have Microsoft Lync, where Microsoft decided to change the game. Where the previous UC products – whilst amazingly versatile – felt somewhat raw and unfinished, Lync was released as a smoothly polished total package. Coming on the heels of MS Exchange 2010 – which includes a more powerful and veratile Voicemail engine than most commercial IP PABX vendors offer (at a fraction of their price) and Microsoft was suddenly a forefront player (pardon the pun) in the voice game. Lync is secure – far more secure than the vast majority of IP PABXs which still transmit voice without encryption – straightforward to deploy, highly reliable and virtually infinitely scalable. Unlike previous versions, there are now powerful Receptionist, Call Recording and Contact Center products integrated with (or available for) it. What’s more – and this is certainly a strategic move on Microsoft’s part – they put the focus on a person’s identity as being most important rather than something as nebulous as their phone number (more on this later). Having recently released well-featured client software for most current SmartPhones and the first half of their establishment is now complete.
The second half is far more subtle and far-reaching. Being “yesterday’s news”, a lot of people have already forgotten that Microsoft purchased Skype last year and that the transfer of ownership was completed in November last year. Think about that for a moment…Microsoft – the organisation whose products are used by the vast bulk of businesses globally now owns possibly the world’s best known pure IP Telephony network with points of presence in virtually every major country (and certainly every major business country). They also now own perhaps the most robust and clear voice CODEC (COder/DECoder) in the world (Cisco was licensing Skype’s CODEC for their Teleworker product for years, if they are still doing so I hope they are being very nice to their friends at MS) and a pretty decent multi-person Video Conferencing engine (one of Microsoft’s few weaknesses in UC was the “one-to-many” model of Live Meeting was always more suited to lectures and presentations than to multi-party collaborative meetings).
So now the world’s largest software company – who has been pouring development dollars into their UC and UM product suites – is one of the world’s largest VoIP-based voice carriers. From my previous post, you already know my predictions that virtually every business will be moving to VoIP over the next few years (not really a prediction since its mostly occurred already) but what I didn’t mention is that most Voice Carriers are starting to offer VoIP trunks (technically called SIP trunks) in lieu of traditional digital trunks (they actually been doing this for years since SIP exchanges are far cheaper than Digital exchanges but they’ve been “black-box” converting back to Digital on the customer premises before presenting it to the PABX) which means that customers can get by without any traditional Voice links and run everything via their data links. A large part of this has been in necessary response to a number of IP PABX vendors certifying their equipment for use with pure SIP carriers (such as MyNetPhone or Skype). Microsoft now has a full-blown pure-software UC system which many organisations already own the licenses to use (through their MS-Select/EA/SBS agreements) along with one of the most trusted and least costly carriage services in the world (here in Australia, it costs only about $72 per year for unlimited land-line calls nationally or about double that for unlimited global land-line calls; most carriers charge that much per month!). How long will it be before they start bundling in carriage as part of those aforementioned Select/EA/SBS agreements? How many businesses will turn their backs on having their Telephony costs slashed to a fraction of their current costs?
What about mobiles? Skype costs a fortune to connect to mobiles! Your whole theory falls apart since more and more people are now using mobiles as their primary means of telephony! Sorry guys, this includes mobiles as well.
The advent of low-cost, pervasive, reliable, high-speed, low-latency data carriage on cellular devices has made the use of VoIP on mobile devices not only practical but in many uses preferable to traditional cellular connectivity. The ability to have a single “identity” (there’s that word again) that rings regardless of whether they are near their PC/Laptop or mobile means that they are always contactable on first attempt and that – if the other party is also a Skype (or similar) subscriber – there is no “voice” carriage cost either. Current data plans are such that a user would have to make an enormous amount of calls before they start eating into a typical data quota.
I’ve mentioned the word “identity” a few times and that was deliberate. The concept of ownership of a person’s “corporate” identity is becoming increasingly a matter of concern for businesses. In the past, you got a job and you were given an email address, a desk number and issued with a company mobile phone (with a company SIM inside it). These days, most companies allow (and are more or less required in order to maintain staff morale) staff members to bring their own device (almost always a Smart Phone in the business world). This raises the issue of the SIM card since it creates a very grey legal area of who owns the number and who pays for the calls and data (since the staff member will certainly make personal use of it). To get past this, the most accepted strategy is to provide the staff member with an allowance to go towards their phone and its call/data costs and leave it at that. Problems with this strategy arise when that staff member leaves the company as they are taking with them what is no doubt the primary way that their clients have been making contact with them which in turn helps the company’s clients follow them to their next place of employ.
By using Identity-driven communications, this problem goes away. The user is still issued with an email address, desk phone number and a mobile allowance but now they are forbidden by company policy to hand out their personal mobile number to clients; and it has no appearance on any of their business literature. Their clients are still able to reach them via their desk number as this will simultaneously ring via VoIP; and it will further be policy for them to make all business calls via VoIP from their cellular device. This means that the company in question now completely controls their staff members’ business identities through every means of business communication. This also means that they can audit and – if necessary (and with all due probity) – record their employee’s business calls. Of course this also allows all this wealth of information to be captured into the business’ CRM system (wait, doesn’t Microsoft have one of those too…?).
For these reasons and more, I believe that many businesses will find the move to including their carriage and carriage management through to MS Lync as the center of their communications systems rather than on its periphery to be irresistible.