The missing Lync?
As it seeks to encourage businesses to look to Microsoft when considering cloud-based productivity solutions, it comes as no surprise that the company has integrated its communications tool, Lync, with the rest of Office 365, in the form of Lync Online. Unlike Microsoft's consumer communications tools (such as Live Messenger, and the recently purchased Skype), Lync requires that a server be run to pass traffic between clients. Lync Online makes running that server Microsoft's concern, at the cost of a monthly, per user fee of £1.30, or £4.25 per user, per month, depending on which features are needed.
The upside to businesses opting for Lync Online is, as with other Office 365 components, the removal of the overhead, both in up-front hardware/software costs and administration. And like the rest of Office 365, Microsoft promises that security and reliability are top priorities, allowing Office 365 customers to relax and get on with other business.
Lync Online is a little different to other components of Office 365, which can be used wholly without any installed software. Lync Online only moves the server aspects of Lync to the cloud - a client application is still required. However, the benefits of having a native client for Lync (not least, tight integration with other Microsoft products) outweigh the marginal usefulness that might be presented by a web-based application.
The core purpose of Lync Online is to facilitate communication between colleagues, just as SharePoint Online aims to ease collaboration. To do this Lync Online provides instant messaging, voice and video calling, and conferencing, with a number of periphery abilities around these core features aimed at business users. Where Lync steals a march over the competition is that thanks to its proprietary nature, it ties in with both Office 365 and Microsoft's desktop products, taking advantage of their features, as well as adding to them.
Although it saw its rise to popularity with consumers, the benefits of instant messaging (IM) over alternative forms of communication are just as evident in a business setting. The ability to mix real-time and non-real-time communication is particularly useful. Like a phone call, if a response is critical, that important answer can be had immediately via IM, but if your respondent is busy they can wait until they are free to read your messages, and reply.
This can be useful even in small offices. Unless a response from a co-worker really is needed immediately, IM is far less distracting both for you colleague, and anyone else in the office. Simply pinging over a message and waiting for the recipient to have time to answer it, is far more environment friendly than shouting a question across the room.
The ability to hold a conversation (or indeed, several simultaneously) while still being able to carry out other tasks is another advantage of IM over its alternatives. It's orders of magnitude easier to collaborate on a document when you're not also talking on the telephone, even if it just means that your hands are free to type and make changes.
Group conversations are made easier with IM, too - a group IM chat is far simpler to set up than a conference call. Furthermore, all parties can take the time to think of what they wish to say, and do so without interrupting each other, and of course the nature of the medium means there's automatically a written record of the conversation.
It's also possible to chat with Live Messenger users from within Lync, which could be useful if staff who don't require the other aspects of Lync Online, still need to IM colleagues that use Lync. As contacts can be moved between the two, migrating from one to the other isn't too big a hassle either.
Lync Online also provides file transfer between contacts, helping keep email inboxes down to manageable levels, and bypassing attachment size limits. Further, as this works on a peer-to-peer basis, it could prove much faster for internal transfers than web-based file sharing options, as almost all internal networks are likely to be faster than their Internet connection.
VoIP and Video Calling
Of course, instant messaging isn't a silver bullet; sometimes picking up the phone is unavoidable, or even beneficial, such as in conference calls, where a presenter needs their hands free to conduct a presentation. To facilitate this, Lync Online provides Voice over IP (VoIP) calling and video calling, from the same interface that delivers instant messaging.
Having the server facilitating these calls hosted by Microsoft doesn't reduce the feature set available in any way. Both VoIP and video calls can be placed to one, or several recipients, and both standard and high definition video is supported. Some particularly neat tricks that Lync offers include automatic switching of the displayed video feed to that of the person currently talking, in video calls with multiple participants or, with an appropriate camera setup, a 360-degree panorama view of a meeting room.
The use of VoIP can reduce the amount of equipment staff have on their desks, as well as potentially saving on the cost of a traditional desk phones. This is especially true if VoIP system is integrated with external telephony, letting a single phone line serve multiple staff via extension numbers. Although Lync Online doesn't inherently support this, its VoIP system can connect with third party providers.
Online Meeting Rooms
Further aiding collaboration between co-workers, Lync Online enables the creation of virtual meeting rooms. For businesses with staff in multiple geographic locations this could present a significant cost saving; a virtual meeting room is infinitely cheaper than hiring a real one.
Meetings can either be pre-booked or launched ad-hoc via the client application. Pre-arranging meetings via Outlook enables users to utilise Outlook's calendar and scheduling options, helping to ensure that a mutually agreeable date and time can be picked. Although of course external participants not using a Microsoft exchange-based calendar can still be invited.
These virtual meetings aim to function as similarly to a real meeting room as possible, and to that end offer a digital whiteboard, on which participants can write and draw, in order to share ideas with each other. Lync Online also offers application and desktop sharing, for the more traditional presentation style conference call. The Mac client can only join as a participant in these meetings though.
Lync Online enables external contacts to be invited to meetings and conference calls, either using the Lync desktop client, or via a web interface. What Lync Online lacks compared to the server version, is the ability to enable landline users to dial into these calls and meetings natively. Instead, Microsoft supports a selection of third parties that do offer landline conferencing.
Lync Online imposes a 250-person limit on meeting participants, which should be enough for even large corporate entities. Although Lync Online can be used to give a webcast, it is primarily intended for collaboration, not presentation purposes.
As well as Windows and Mac clients for Lync, Microsoft also makes fully-featured mobile apps for iOS, Android and, of course, Windows Phone 7. Three apps are functionally identical, with any differences either aesthetic, or platform-specific (out-of-app notifications, for example).
All offer the ability to launch either an email, IM or voice conversation via the respective OS's naive applications, when appropriate. If contacts are available to call via VoIP they will be (in the case of the iPad and Android tablets, this could be the only calling option) with the option to make a 'normal' phone call also offered.
It's also possible to join a meeting via the mobile Lync client, although the collaborative tools available to the desktop client are not present on mobile, and Lync Mobile also lacks video calling. None the less, the usefulness of being able to maintain most communication with business contacts while away from a desktop computer should override the few limitations of Lync Mobile.
If enabled by an administrator, Lync Online also offers users the option to have Lync notifications about incoming IMs, missed calls, and voice mail messages sent to their mobile phone. For staff who spend a lot of time away from their desks, this will be particularly valuable.
Lync Online lets users display their online status, or 'presence' as Microsoft calls it, not only across Office 365 apps, such as Outlook online and SharePoint (aiding document collaboration), but also in desktop Outlook. The display of 'presence' also removes the common frustration of not knowing whether a colleague is actually available when trying to get in contact.
In addition to tying in with the Office 365 calendar features to make scheduling a time to call a colleague easier, Lync's 'presence' feature also means that if that person isn't available at that time for some reason, you can save yourself the trouble of calling to find out. Lync Online enables staff to easily make their availability (or unavailability) clear to co-workers, and even update that information when away from their desks, if they have Lync Mobile on their phone.
For businesses using SharePoint, Lync Online is designed to pair with Microsoft's document collaboration tool, providing presence information for SharePoint team members. Lync lets collaborators see the 'presence' of other team members, from within SharePoint, and consolidates communication between co-workers into any existing SharePoint workflow.
Lync Online also allows users to communicate with other Lync users external to the company. This will primarily be of benefit to large organisations, with subsidiaries not sharing the same Office 365 Team Site, that still need to communicate. However, the ability to enable outside communication via Lync Online could also let businesses open up additional communication channels to customers.
The right tool for the job
The upshot of having a wide range of contact options with Lync, is that it encourages picking the appropriate way to contact a colleague based on the type of response needed. If a phone conversation would be quicker or easier than typing out a long email, and that person is available online, it's easy to launch a Lync voice call via Outlook.
The integration of Lync Online with Office, and Office 365 further encourages this behaviour. Because it means it's no harder to reply to an email with a phone call or IM, and because it's easy to see if a colleague is currently busy, or not, it's more likely that co-workers will pick a mutually suitable way to communicate with each other. Similarly making it easier for colleagues to easily keep in contact with each other in a manner than suits all parties could well encourage co-workers who might otherwise have avoided doing so, to collaborate more closely.
Alternatives to Lync Online do exist, whether for conferencing, instant messaging or voice and video calling. However, none can hope to match Microsoft's ability to integrate its products and create such a cohesive overall package. Lync Online's feature set clearly represents Microsoft's dedication to making Office 365 an invaluable tool that integrates with every aspect of business life.