Lync-Optimized Desk Phones: Frozen in Time?
While Microsoft continues to support Lync-optimized phones, it's stymieing the development of new models.
In my recent slide show on Lync desk phones, I detailed the difference between optimized and qualified models, as well as how specific devices within each category compare with one another. But I left one observation about Lync-optimized phones to elaborate on here, where I have room to explain: If you're interested in Lync-optimized phones, what you see today on the market is what you'll see tomorrow.
While this seems to be common knowledge among Lync insiders, I haven't seen this news spelled out clearly for members of the hoi polloi like me. But, truly, you will never see any new models of Lync-optimized phones. Not in the near future. Not in the not-so-near future. Not ever. For all their great features, Lync-optimized phones are largely frozen in time.
Before I continue, let me provide a quick refresher: Optimized phones natively run a version of the Lync software called Lync Phone Edition. This lets them act as regular Lync clients, which means they can be provisioned and managed directly from Lync Server. And, for the time being at least, optimized phones tend to support a richer set of Lync features than their Lync-qualified cousins.
To be clear, Microsoft will continue supporting the Lync Phone Edition software, releasing cumulative updates for it over, the next several years -- in fact, the Lync team blogged in April that it would be supporting Lync Phone Edition until at least 2018. So as far as that goes, optimized phones have a considerable amount of life in them.
No New Developers
However, desk phone developers that don't currently have Lync-optimized phones in their portfolio cannot introduce ones of their own. This includes Grandstream, Yealink, and others that I've heard had expressed interest in developing their own lines of Lync-optimized desk phones to flesh out their product lines. Joining the optimized crowd would have made sense. Grandstream and Yealink are independent developers of generic SIP phones for a wide range of communications platforms. Grandstream has demoed its GXV3240 video-capable SIP phone working in a Lync environment and has an Android-based desk phone that's Lync compatible, while Yealink is in the process of qualifying its T22 and T48 devices for Lync compatibility.
Adding optimized phones to their respective portfolios would have let Yealink and Grandstream sell to Lync customers that have decided on the optimized rather than qualified route. But because Microsoft is not allowing new entrants to adopt desk phones based on the reference spec that defines what a Lync optimized phone is, they won't be able to do that. Lync-optimized phones will only be available from the existing cast of characters, namely Aastra, HP, and Polycom.
By comparison, the market for Lync-qualified phones is considerably more dynamic, with new entrants like AudioCodes and (presumably) Yealink entering the fray.
No New Models
Additionally, Microsoft will not be producing a new hardware reference spec for Lync-optimized phones. The reference spec, which came out a few years ago now, essentially tells developers how to make two types of desk phones -- a higher-end model and a lower-end one. It's the reason that Aastra, HP, and Polycom each have two Lync-optimized phones -- a higher-end model and a lower-end one -- that, barring cosmetic differences, are essentially identical. That is, the vendors can differentiate on things like number and type of ports, the quality of the speaker, the look and feel of the casing, and so forth. But the Lync features that each optimized device supports and how those features are supported are defined by the reference spec.
As I noted, Microsoft will update the Lync-optimized phone software until it says it won't anymore. But without a new reference spec (or significant changes to the existing one) phone makers will not deliver any new models of optimized phones -- there will be no mid-range "CX 550" model to sit in between Polycom's CX 500 and CX 600, for example. The same models of Lync-optimized phones introduced as early as 2010 will continue to be sold to Lync customers going forward.
Once again, the market for Lync-qualified phones is considerably more dynamic. Developers of generic SIP phones are regularly getting new devices qualified. This is why devices recently verified as compatible and identified as such by a the blue "new" icon in the Lync catalog are all qualified, not optimized devices. Developers also regularly re-qualify their Lync-qualified devices. This made it difficult to draft my Lync phone slideshow, since the charts I used to compare device capabilities changed regularly as vendors introduced improvements to their Lync-qualified desk phones. Spec changes weren't a problem with catalog entries on Lync-optimized devices because, with the exception of updates to the Lync Phone Edition software, what you now see with Lync-optimized phone models is what you'll get going forward.
What It Means
Though qualified phones support a comparatively smaller set of Lync features compared with optimized ones, this feature gap is small and getting smaller. For example, numerous qualified phones support Microsoft's RTAudio codec, but only for narrowband communications. For wideband RTAudio you need a Lync-optimized phone. Or do you? AudioCodes says the latest version of its Lync-qualified phones' firmware can now support wideband RTAudio.
And managing and provisioning desk phones from directly within Lync Server has long been an optimized thing. But Snom Technology now says it's making moves to do just that. And then there's that whole boss/admin thing I talked about in the slideshow. Optimized phones can't support it, but more and more qualified ones can.
One of the main takeaways I got from speaking with each of the Lync desk phone developers is to buy optimized phones if your devices need to tie in closely to Lync now. But expect qualified phones not only to reach feature parity soon, but also to exceed optimized phones in terms of features and functionality.
After all, qualified phones is where all the action is, development-wise. Lines of qualified phones have more models, providing buyers with greater choice. Lines of qualified phones are expanding. Lines of qualified phones have cordless and video-capable models. Qualified phones give developers more freedom to add differentiating features. Qualified phones are starting to support features that optimized phones don't and never will.
Please note that I've been choosing my words very carefully here. I'm not saying that Lync-optimized phones have reached end of sale, that they're dead as a product category, or that they're inferior to Lync-qualified devices. As far as I can tell the first two of these statements are not true, while the third would need to come from someone with more hand-on experience than me. I'm just making the observation that relative to Lync-qualified phones, the development of optimized ones has been -- and looks like it will remain -- comparatively stagnant.
Lync customers have expressed concern about the "perceived demise" of optimized phones. Microsoft has responded by extending the support lifetime for Lync Phone Edition. But providing ongoing support for and even delivering incremental updates to the Lync Phone Edition software does not a growing, thriving product class make.
If it wants to demonstrate the importance of Lync-optimized devices Microsoft needs to do more than announce ongoing support. By only introducing comparably minor software updates, not releasing a new reference spec that would lead to more optimized models, and failing to add new handset developers to the list of active developers, Microsoft is giving the impression that Lync-optimized phones are gradually on the way out. If this is not in fact the case, the onus is on Microsoft to breathe some new life into Lync-optimized desk phones.