Today, Microsoft begins life as a real competitor in the enterprise voice space. It has slain dragons (like enabling call access control and E911), faced mighty jousters (Miercom has called Lync a resilient, feature-rich, scalable UC system in their review), and emerged triumphant to compete for enterprise accounts looking for unified communications and collaboration (UC&C) solutions. Microsoft has amassed an impressive list of early adaptors — of both Office Communications Service Release 2 (OCS R2) and Lync — that includes large and small deployments with varied features/capabilities enabled.

Lync required Lighthouse accounts to use a wide array of services at significant scale, so I expect to see big accounts like Marquette University and the Dominican Republic Ministry of Education join current OCS enterprise voice users like Shell, Intel, AT Kearney, and Sprint on Microsoft’s “Customer Success Stories” page. In talking to many early adopters, I heard very few complaints about voice quality or reliability of the solutions, and:

  1.      Almost every firm using Lync is connecting employees together using Lync AND other Microsoft products.
  2.      Improved voice quality and reliability drives customer satisfaction and makes Microsoft’s story more credible in delivering UC&C solutions.

As further proof, I was told that even Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has finally relinquished his desk phone and relies entirely on his Microsoft Lync client for all his UC&C needs in the office.

The list of voice capabilities and features in Lync is impressive for a vendor that had almost no voice strategy to speak of just 10 years ago.

  • Smart Search lets you find experts from across a company based on data in SharePoint and Active Directory — even when you don’t know their names.
  • Rich presence integrated into the Lync client and other productivity apps drive significantly improved user satisfaction, adoption, and value to the company.
  • Integrated Web and videoconferencing gives one more “click-to-collaborate” experience.
  • Real return on investment. When we spoke to a dozen Lync Lighthouse customers, as part of a study commissioned by Microsoft, the customers consistently praised the ease of upgrading their Microsoft servers to Lync.  Based on these conversations, Forrester estimates that businesses upgrading to Lync from environments that included Microsoft’s OCS server and enterprise voice capabilities will achieve payback in 12 months and achieve a three-year, risk-adjusted return on investment of 337%. Microsoft presents these findings in a white paperon the Web today.

Even with this feedback, Micrsooft Lync is not yet the panacea to all enterprise colalboration needs

  • Project management challenges. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that IT professionals upgrading older or uneven Microsoft implementations face a steep climb in getting all the right interoperable Microsoft servers and clients in place. Just look at Accenture’s experience in migrating forward from OCS R1 — in addition to a 32-bit to 64-bit platform migration, Accenture had to coordinate Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync deployment programs to ensure reliable delivery of collaboration services.
  • Interoperability challenges. Microsoft’s strategy to create an integrated UC&C suite makes it easy for companies to trial UC&C capabilities by delivering tested and certified configurations, but many customers still have wildly heterogeneous environments that demand multivendor interoperability. Microsoft has championed the Unified Communications Interoperability Forum as a vehicle to drive industry consensus on how to achieve this interoperability, but neither industry heavy weights like Avaya and Cisco Systems nor interoperability practitioners like Dimension Data and Orange are committed to the forum. Driving inter-vendor as well as other forms of UC&C interoperability, like mobility and business application integration, will allow a variety of developers to deliver greater innovation to the market faster through a component ecosystem (for more on this, check out my September 10 report “Jump-Starting The Unified Communications Market”).
  • Videoconferencing challenges. Has Microsoft solved all of the issues faced by customers looking for an integrated, single vendor solution? No, not really. Microsoft still lacks deep integration to videoconferencing solutions, despite their close relationship with Polycom.  IT professionals who want to successfully implement desktop video access via a Lync client to LifeSize, Polycom, or Tandberg/Cisco videoconferencing solutions today need deep expertise on their staff or from their value-added resellers (VARs).
  • Mobility challenges. Microsoft also hasn’t solved the other Achilles’ heel in most vendors’ UC&C solutions — mobility. Sure, there is a Microsoft Communicator client for Symbian and RIM, but what about iPhone? While providing robust mobile access will be tough for Microsoft Lync, I expect Windows Phone 7 will soon offer exemplary mobility for Lync, and I hope Microsoft will quickly port that experience to other mobile devices — including tablets.

UC&C buyers have more choices today, but the future is clear — solutions that offer a clear path forward to open, standard interoperability will deliver more results and deliver them faster. The leading vendors that embrace open interoperability (both horizontal and vertical) sooner will gain market share at a disproportionate rate because they will deliver more value.

Are you a UC&C buyer or vendor with opinions about Lync or other UC&C solutions? Let me know what you are seeing, how your deployments are going, and what you want from UC&C vendors.