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Unified Unified Communications: Microsoft's WPC 2012

I'm sure my high school English teacher told me to not not use no double negatives, or something like that. However, I fail to recall any similar warning related to double positives. And so, after the first two days at the Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference (WPC) being held in Toronto, I wanted to summarize what I have seen that leads me to conclude that Microsoft is truly pursuing "unified unified" communications.

This year WPC is setting records with over 16,000 attendees from 100+ countries converging on Toronto, making it both the largest WPC and the largest conference the city of Toronto has ever hosted. The streets and local establishments are filled with "badge wearing" technologists. To try and attract the crowd, one local restaurant went so far as to hang banners proclaiming "Bill Gates for Mayor".

And while WPC covers "all things Microsoft", which extends much farther and wider than communications and collaboration, many of the key Microsoft areas of focus will directly influence and shape the UC market moving forward.

During Monday’s keynote Steve Ballmer, not surprisingly, emphasized the next version of the Windows operating system, Windows 8, which will provide the new "Metro" design interface and its consistent user experience across all range of devices including desktops, laptops, tablets, Windows Phones and even Xbox. (Unlike other vendors who try to proclaim we are living in a post-PC era, Microsoft clearly sees the new devices as PCs in new form factors.) According to Ballmer, "Windows 8 is the biggest deal for Microsoft in 17 years".

During the keynote Ballmer also mentioned that Microsoft had acquired Perceptive Pixel (PPI) a manufacturer of large-scale, multi-touch display solutions. Jeff Han, the founder and CTO of PPI, then went on to demonstrate using Windows 8 and Lync on one of their 82" multi-touch displays. Lync collaboration features seemed to scale well to the touch-interface and the huge screen.

The ability of the Windows 8 interface to scale from Windows Phone sized screens, to the increasing array of Windows 8 tablets, to more traditional laptops and desktops, up to huge multi-touch displays provides a new and unique ability for communication and collaboration tools to provide a more consistent and unified user experience across a very wide range of UC devices. Couple this with Microsoft's increasing commitment to release Lync mobile on the iPhone, iPad and Android platforms, and we clearly have more unified UC.

Kurt DelBene, president, Microsoft Office Division, shared the stage with Steve to provide updates on Microsoft's cloud-based communication platform: Office 365. Office 365 is clearly Microsoft’s hosted UC platform play.

Office 365 through Exchange provides hosted email and voice mail (and also can provide the auto attendant feature), through Sharepoint provides hosted collaboration portals and through Lync provides hosted instant messaging, presence, video, peer-to-peer voice and recently PSTN voice. Inbound and outbound voice calling with O365 is accomplished through the "Lync-to-phone" service that will be available from partners. According to the O365 online documentation:

If your version of Office 365 includes Lync to phone (Lync Plan 3), you can set up an account with a Lync to phone service provider so users can make calls to, or receive calls from, any phone number. Lync to phone features include call forwarding, simultaneous ring, assigning a delegate to receive your calls, and team calling.

Currently only Jajah (acquired by Telefónica Europe in 2010) is listed as providing this service, and it is currently only available in the US and the UK. The Jajah PSTN connectivity is priced at $24.99 per user per month for unlimited calling within the US and Canada. A lower priced $13.99 plan provides up to 2,500 minutes of calling per month.

Alternatively, Microsoft made available in March of this year a multitenant version of Lync that hosting partners can install in their data centers and provide further unified UC capabilities including integrations with the PSTN and integrations to other specialized applications such as CRMs. According to the Microsoft documentation:

Microsoft Lync Server 2010 Multitenant Pack for Partner Hosting is a unified communications (UC) solution for telecom and hosting providers. Unified communications is a way for telecom and hosting providers to expand their service offering to the present base customers. The Lync Server Multitenant Hosting Pack features include integration with Microsoft Exchange Server, Microsoft Outlook, and other communication technologies.

With its on-premises Lync, Exchange and Sharepoint server products and the Office 365 cloud-based versions of the same products, Microsoft has unified UC by supporting hybrid solutions built from customer-premises-equipment (CPE) and cloud-based equipment, arguably more easily than any other vendor. Many UC vendors talk about supporting hybrid scenarios but Microsoft has and continues to support this in the "real world" both from a technical and licensing perspective. Announced licensing mobility allows customers to purchase a hosted O365 plan and then use the included Lync license to enable an on-premises or partner-dedicated version of Lync to be used. And the O365 Open program announced at WPC allows telco and hosting providers to "own" the customer relationship, handle billing for O365 and recognize the top line revenue for the complete solution sale.

What I did not hear in the first two days was any further details about how Skype will be integrated with Lync or Windows Phone. Clearly Skype integration work is going on but so far Microsoft is not ready to share details. On the Lync and Skype side, I still believe my prediction that Lync will support federation with Skype is accurate. With regard to Windows Phone 8, there are recent rumors that Skype calls will be directly integrated into the standard phone calling process so that making a Skype calls will be the same as making a cellular call. I have not heard any details on this at WPC but there still days 3 and 4.

For more WPC updates, please follow me at @kkieller.