Skype for Business or Lync with a Facelift? And how does IE WebRTC fit in?

lync as skype

Two days ago, Microsoft announced that “Skype for Business” will roll out in 2015. In addition to having retired Messenger, Skype will be doing the same to Lync, Microsoft Office’s longstanding answer to business videoconferencing and collaboration.  However, within the announcement were the following three sentences:

“…we’re adopting the familiar Skype icons for calling, adding video and ending a call. We’ve added the call monitor from Skype, which keeps an active call visible in a small window even when a user moves focus to another application.

“At the same time, Skype for Business keeps and improves on all of the capabilities of Lync, including content sharing and telephony.”

It appears that Lync isn’t being retired so much as being overlaid with Skype’s GUI and being rebranded. I was tempted to argue whether or not this really counted as being “Skype”, but then realized that a large part of what makes Skype Skype actually IS that interface.

Something like this was expected, of course, ever since Microsoft acquired Skype.  It’s a smart move:  Skype, despite its immense popularity in the private world, was unable to transfer that popularity into the business world due to security concerns and subpar collaboration tools.  (Anyone who’s ever tried to give a decent presentation or collaborate on a project via Skype knows what I’m saying here.)  On the other hand, it’s a bit of a minor miracle (that miracle being a part of Office) that Lync has survived.  Let’s face it, even WebEx‘s old interface (now much improved) was more engaging, much less Citrix‘ products, VSee, ourselves, and a slew of others.

This may well create a powerhouse competitor.  The other thing in my mind that makes Skype Skype is its massive user database, which will now be reachable for video calls and presence indication to former Lync users (previously available audio-only)…so finding that long lost sales contact from two positions ago will be an easy proposition.  Although the number of Skype users at acquisition was less than the number of Messenger and Lync users, the reach into the base of phone/video/IM users who were not on Lync was very, very deep.  Heck, most of us at other videoconferencing / video collaboration companies also have Skype accounts, largely because everyone else is there.

Does this mean trouble for swyMe, Cisco, Citrix, and others?  No. It will no doubt be a successful move, and probably the best one they’ve made in years.  However, there is too great a need for platform-agnostic players…and productivity suite-agnostic players.  Adopting Skype for Business as your only tool effectively traps you in the Microsoft ecosystem in much the same way Google does with Chrome and Android.  Actually, much worse: It traps you in the ecosystem much like Apple does.  It may also still be accompanies by some of the same IT headaches that accompanied Lync and Skype when they were installed separately. Maybe not, but likely.  There will also always be a need for highly agile, adaptable solutions and companies with easier-to-reach support, less necessary IT involvement, and, in our case, higher quality video and audio using far less bandwidth.  The benefits of Skype for Business over other solutions are reserved for those already invested in the Microsoft ecosystem.

Speaking of ecosystems, two weeks ago Microsoft announced that it is jumping into the WebRTC fray.  Essentially, it wants users to launch Skype from within Internet Explorer (or “IE”, as the techies call it).  This will be interesting to watch play out, with Microsoft going head-to-head against–*shocker*–Google and Apple.  I’m assuming a result similar to the one in the mobile world: Enough people will stick with IE to keep Microsoft a key player, but the majority market share will be split by Google and Apple.  I may be biased; I love my Chrome browser the way I love my Android phone.  I admit it’s equally plausible that Microsoft will actually do well here and divvy up the bulk of the market three ways, with various niche audiences (say, Firefox users) and uses (like Mozilla’s Firefox VoIP-only offering) will make up the rest.  That Skype user base may just be that powerful for market positioning.

Again, there should be no real impact for the larger collaboration market (for now), although I believe it will prompt some thought about enabling ad hoc business collaboration from what is essentially a personal communication tool. Is there an easy way to switch from a browser-based call into a more secure, task optimized collaboration call that utilizes some combination of SaaS and endpoint encryptions?  This is pure speculation and isn’t likely what will happen, but it serves as a reminder that Microsoft’s WebRTC efforts will likely influence innovation in the more general video communication market as a whole.


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