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That voice you hear from the cloud is Microsoft’s

Unified communications as a service

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Emergency lifeline

Microsoft has fantastic technology and many bright people to keep it moving forward. Every now and again it falls short in one area while focusing on another, but its core strengths lie in technology.

Microsoft is not a phone company. Despite this, the UC package is, in combination with a hosting company, a fully fledged corporate phone system.

A voice service outage – such as me not being able to call outbound from my Lync client office phone – is a critical emergency. I don’t care if we are dealing with one user down or 100,000, a lack of voice services is a big deal.

With voice communications down, users cannot call 911, a mandatory service in North America. The rigid requirements surrounding service levels for telecommunications providers in Canada centre around this concept. It is one reason why services such as Google Voice tend not to make it up here.

This is before we touch on the impact on businesses that operate 24/7. Office 365 support has to be fully staffed at all hours or it is a deal-breaker.

In the UK, Microsoft says 24/7 support is available and points to more front-line options for premium accounts, as well as a financially backed service level agreement underpinning its 99.9 per cent uptime guarantee. But as always the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Organisations that are using Lync to replace PBX voice include Volvo and Aston Martin

I look at my wife, asleep on the couch after a long day’s work, and realise that as my co-worker she is directly affected by my choice of office communications service. Am I willing to bet her life on Office 365’s ability to be up and resolve issues in a timely fashion? No. Microsoft is not there yet.

Microsoft has some evolving to do before I would consider it to replace my fixed-line provider. But it could make this transition fairly easily, and indeed Microsoft has drummed up a clutch of case studies about organisations that are already using Lync to replace PBX voice. Early adopters include Volvo and Aston Martin.

Microsoft needs to identify a few individuals who are capable of recognising the flaws in its offering, who have the ability to direct groups of people to solve them and have enough authority to enact change.

Given that Microsoft is all in on the cloud, I see this as somewhat inevitable. Microsoft insiders say they recognise some of the shortcomings of voice in the cloud and the company is addressing this with enterprise-class voice available “soon”.

Despite my grousing about services, the technology is good enough to merit serious consideration. So long as I still have a hard line at all offices for emergency calls, I am seriously considering bringing Office 365 in for use.

Hype about Skype

Microsoft inherited a massive worldwide user base when it bought Skype in 2011. The company then merged Skype with the MSN instant messaging network because the hard work of making Lync talk to MSN had already been done.

And this year Microsoft threw the switch enabling the wildly popular consumer telecommunications product that is Skype, with more than 600 million users, to talk to Microsoft’s UC, a futuristic enterprise communications network.

This will help convince enterprises to fork out the money for subscriptions and cement Outlook (and thus Office) as the foundation of corporate communications for the foreseeable future.

If I were in charge of a company remotely invested in telecommunications I would be running scared right now. Microsoft’s problems with the technology and support can be solved in relatively short order.

At that point Microsoft will be sitting on top of a rock-solid offering whose technology is so far ahead of what anyone else can bring to bear that it may well dominate the communications market – enterprise and consumer, unified and joined up – for decades to come.

In one form or another UC is the inevitable reality for business. The technology battle is already over: what’s on the table is more than good enough.

Whether or not that future of UC truly belongs to Microsoft depends both on the company’s ability to adapt its support and on the ability of competitors to fight back. ®

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