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Lync Online: Enterprise Voice out, PSTN calling in

Question: When will Lync Online support Enterprise Voice? Short answer: Who knows?

But there's also a long answer, and, frankly, it's pretty interesting. And from the perspective of Lync Online customers, it's potentially promising for those willing to keep waiting. So let's take some time to dissect what Microsoft is now saying it plans and does not plan to offer when it comes to baking better telephony capabilities into Lync Online.

First, a little backstory. There are two versions of Lync: Lync Server 2013 and Lync Online. (There's a third actually--one for hosting providers--but let's skip that since it's not central to what we're talking about now.)

• Lync Server is deployed as on-premises software; Lync Online is a cloud-based subscription service.

• Lync Server supports IM, presence, conferencing, and all that great stuff; Lync Online has all that too.

• Lync Server supports an optional set of advanced telephony features called Enterprise Voice (at least more advanced than supported by Lync without Enterprise Voice); Lync Online doesn't.

Enterprise Voice in Lync Online was a twinkle in Microsoft's eye back in 2011. In February 2013, erstwhile Skype president Tony Bates said Lync Online would have Enterprise Voice within the next 18 months. In July 2013, VP Derek Burney reiterated "Microsoft's commitment for Enterprise Voice in Lync Online." But in his Lync Conference 2014 keynote, Lync's prodigal chief Gurdeep Singh Pall said, "This year we will be bringing the ability to get phone numbers and PSTN in-and-out calling into Lync Online. This is what customers have been asking for, and we're going to make that happen."

Note the change in verbiage. Lync Online will get PSTN calling. Not Enterprise Voice. PSTN calling.

Gurdeep Signh Pall announcing PSTN calling from Lync Online at Lync Conference 2014

Enterprise Voice vs. PSTN calling
Enterprise Voice has a very specific meaning in Lync parlance, so let's let Microsoft explain it:

"With Enterprise Voice, Lync Server delivers a stand-alone Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) offering to enhance or replace traditional private branch exchange (PBX) systems. Enterprise Voice users can call colleagues on your organization's VoIP network or PBX, and they can call traditional phone numbers outside your organization. The Enterprise Voice solution includes common calling features such as answer, forward, transfer, hold, divert, release and park, and Enhanced 9-1-1...." [emphasis added]

Enterprise Voice is vitally important to Microsoft's UC strategy because it's what makes Lync Server a viable alternative to a traditional PBX deployed on-premises. It's what lets Lync Server go head-to-head with Cisco UC Manager, Avaya Aura Communications Manager, and the myriad other business voice systems out there. Lync with Enterprise Voice has PBX call features--not hundreds or even dozens, but enough to pique enterprises' interest. It's got Response Groups--not precisely ACD but ACD-ish. It's got call admission control, which helps deliver enterprise-quality voice over bandwidth-constrained networks. And it's got that bit I italicized--the ability to dial regular old phone numbers...aka PSTN calling.

As I mentioned, Enterprise Voice is the reason why enterprises opt for (or at least consider) Lync Server as an alternative to a traditional PBX. Lack of Enterprise Voice is the reason why enterprises cannot use--or even consider using--Lync Online as an alternative to a hosted PBX service. If and when Microsoft bakes the full set of Enterprise Voice capabilities into Lync Online, it could have something competitive with hosted PBX services.

A year ago, Microsoft was essentially saying that's the direction Lync Online was heading when Enterprise Voice was ostensibly on the Lync Online roadmap. But the story has changed. At Lync Conference 2014, Microsoft said that the plan is now to add only PSTN calling--just one of all the Enterprise Voice features--to Lync Online.

So what is PSTN calling? As Pall and others at the Lync Conference explained it, it sounded like little more than a dialer, as well as the ability to have a phone number associated with an end user's Lync account. The phone numbers will come from one of four telcos partnering with Microsoft, and when someone dials that number, a Lync Online user can answer the call with her or his Lync client. Users can also place calls to PSTN numbers as well.

Next Page: More than PSTN Calling, Less than Enterprise Voice

More than PSTN calling, less than Enterprise Voice
So is that it? Lync Online users will be able to not only set up PC-to-PC voice connections, but will also be able to make and receive calls to the PSTN? Nothing more than that?

Well, as it turns out, it's not only PSTN calling that will be added to Lync Online. I heard this first from some Microsoft partners at the Lync conference and had it confirmed by Microsoft reps attending Enterprise Connect last month.

To understand what besides PSTN calling will be added to Lync Online, a little more backstory...

Right now there are two options for buying Lync Online: Plan 1 with multiparty chat and point-to-point voice/video; and Plan 2 with multiparty chat/voice/video and content sharing. A few years ago, however, there used to be a Plan 3 that included more advanced telephony features, described in Microsoft documentation as:

• Make and receive calls to any phone number using a calling service from a partner
• Interoperability with Exchange Online voice mail
• User call controls (call transfer, simultaneous ringing, etc.)
• Cloud-based interoperability with partners providing calling services (e.g. Jajah)

There's a lot of interesting stuff in the Plan 3 feature list. Make/receive calls from any phone--so PSTN calling like what's now on the Lync Online roadmap. Voice mail and user call controls like call hold, transfer, and forward--so some Enterprise Voice stuff that wasn't actually noted in Microsoft's PSTN calling in Lync Online announcement.

The mention of Jajah is also significant. The defunct Plan 3 dates back to when Microsoft announced that Jajah would be the first of several providers integrating their Internet telephony services with Lync Online to allow PSTN calling. But Jajah crashed and burned. In mid-2013 it discontinued the Lync Online integration and in early 2014 all of its services shut down completely. Microsoft had never signed up any other service providers. So Lync Online lost its one and only way of connecting out to the PSTN, and Plan 3, with its--let's call it--"Enterprise Voice lite" feature set, was quietly scuttled.

Microsoft now plans to not only reinstate PSTN calling but also some or all of Plan 3's "Enterprise Voice lite" features. I first got wind of this in a hallway chat with Microsoft partners at Lync Conference. Those working with Microsoft to make PSTN calling in Lync Online a reality told me that users can definitely forward, transfer, and otherwise manipulate calls coming from the PSTN, and that simultaneous ringing will certainly be possible with Lync Online. So perhaps this is the return of Plan 3 in all its glory. No call admission control, no Response Groups, but a set of PBX-like features that go above and beyond simple PSTN calling.

So when will Lync Online get PSTN calling and all this other great stuff? Microsoft isn't committing to delivery dates, but from what I heard it will be available from four telco partners later this year. Later--in 2015--it will be available from Microsoft itself. I unearthed a number of details around the two (or three, depending on who you ask) ways telcos will be able to deliver PSTN calling for Lync Online. I've detailed them, as well as the timeframe in which services are likely to become available, in a short Ovum report that those with a Knowledge Center subscription can read here.

Pent-Up Demand
Lync Online's lack of Enterprise Voice--or even just PSTN calling and subset of EV features we're talking about here--has long frustrated me as an analyst. If Lync Server can be a viable alternative to an on-prem PBX, I don't see why it's taking Microsoft so long to make Lync Online into just as viable an alternative to a hosted PBX service.

But I'll tell you who is even more frustrated: Lync Online customers. After publishing my Ovum report, one of our clients, an IT infrastructure manager at a Japanese automotive parts supplier with nearly 50 locations, emailed me about his company's use of Lync Online.

Though manufacturing centers have a challenging network environment with limited bandwidth and high costs of access lines, "Lync Online has proven to be a robust solution to keep these [sites] connected," he wrote. "However, a constant cause of frustration...has been the lack of PSTN access which is only compounded by the lack of clear direction and timing from Microsoft for a solution and by the presence of PSTN on the Skype platform." The ability to call out to the PSTN via Skype, he continued, "makes it a concept that our users are very aware of, yet [with Lync Online it is] as far away as ever in terms of delivery dates."

Lync Online customers I spoke with at the Lync Conference are also eager for PSTN calling. It used to be an option, and they want it back as an option. They are heartened that Microsoft plans to reinstate it as an option. They're miffed that it isn't available yet, that it won't be available for so long, and that Microsoft isn't committing to a specific delivery date. But I'm getting the impression that once Microsoft delivers it there will be much rejoicing among Lync Online customers.

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