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The Microsoft Federation Continues

Microsoft on Monday unveiled the latest version of its Office suite, and with this introduction, the company ushers in significant communication and collaboration improvements that will touch most small, medium and large businesses.

While many other articles have already been written about the new features Office 2013 brings, I wanted to focus on how Microsoft's integration/unification/federation overall approach is likely to have a large and lasting impact on unified communications and collaboration.

Lync, even before it was called Lync (previous versions were named Office Communications Server), has been Microsoft’s enterprise communication tool providing instant messaging, presence, voice, video and conferencing capabilities. At Enterprise Connect in the spring of 2012 it appeared Lync was achieving a "critical mass," with users finding increasing value in federating (connecting securely via the Internet) and thus being able to seamlessly communicate with suppliers, customers and business partners.

The federation between Lync organizations and the integration between Lync and the other Office tools, which are de facto standards in most business and home offices, are the two key features most often cited as the reason Lync is successful with both end users and IT personnel. End users feel "comfortable" with Lync since it operates similarly to the other Office tools. While Lync, with all of its features can be complex, IT staff who are already familiar with Windows Server, Active Directory, and Exchange will find many of the configuration and administrative tools familiar.

Office 2013 greatly extends the Lync federation model to include the ability to connect with all of your Skype contacts and share IM, presence and video. Connecting to GoogleTalk contacts, albeit only via IM, is also easier now that Lync 2013 includes a built-in XMPP bridge. For the record, Lync 2013 now connects you to Skype, Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and Google Talk. Integration with Xbox Live has also been demoed previously but was not officially announced. The Rise of the Public Collaboration Network (PCN) is truly at hand.

So Office 2013 finally brings the long-sought-after federation between Lync and Skype, and the announcement also included mention that Office 365 users will be provided with 60 minutes of Skype credit each month, which should allow them to connect O365 to landlines around the world.

I still expect that Microsoft has further Skype integration announcements in store for the future. Monday's announcement did not include a discussion of the entire Skype integration roadmap, which has yet to be laid out. At a minimum, Windows Phone 8 should include Skype calling into the mobile OS so that placing a Skype voice call is virtually identical to making a cellular call.

Lync 2013 extends and improves the integration with the other Office applications. The ability to share and collaborate using a OneNote workbook during a meeting greatly improves the ability to capture meeting details and brainstorm with groups of remote users. The previously-separate group chat client is now part of the core Lync client. An improved "contact card" lets you quickly access all the communication modalities for any contact from within any Office application including the new social feeds included in SharePoint.

And like all the Office 2013 tools, Lync 2013 has been revised to better support touch via the Windows 8 "design language" called Metro. This means that Lync can run well on the new Windows 8 tablets, on laptops, desktop PCs and even on the massive PPI (Perceptive Pixel Inc.) 82” multi-touch display, which was demonstrated Monday as part of the Office 2013 preview.

Lync 2010 combined with Office 365 already enabled a number of pure-cloud and cloud-plus on-premises hybrid scenarios. Lync 2013 and the new Office 365 beta improves this support. Microsoft marketing refers to this as "the cloud on your terms". While this is easy to dismiss as a marketing catch phrase, the reality is that, perhaps more so than any other vendor, Microsoft is making it (relatively) easy for an organization to have some users supported by on-premises servers where this makes sense, while others in the same organization are supported by in-the-cloud servers/services.

Office 2013 better supports the cloud by default-saving documents to a user's SkyDrive and by further replicating key documents and configuration settings across devices using the cloud store. Lync Online meetings may benefit through the improved ability to record meetings and share these meetings with others.

Lastly, while not a new feature, the fact that the standard Office 365 desktop tools installation process now by default installs Access, Excel, InfoPath, Lync, OneNote, Outlook, PowerPoint, Publisher, SharePoint Workspace and Word, to me means Lync has been promoted to the "bundle"--big time.

With Office 2013, Microsoft demonstrates how its recent acquisitions can be brought together to focus on four key areas:

* Integration
* Federation
* Multiple device support
* Cloud/on-premises transparency

These focus areas are consistent with the often stated unified communications mantra which promised the ability to communicate with all your contacts, on any device, using any communication modality from wherever you were.

Office 2013 combined with the upcoming Windows 8 release is a significant communication and collaboration platform. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer described the new Office as "the most ambitious release of Office". Office 2013 will be launched into a marketplace that includes several strong and worthy competitors, especially on mobile devices. We truly do live in interesting times.