What is Microsoft Lync & Why Should I Care? A Non-Technical Introduction to Microsoft Lync
I’ve been working at Modality Systems for several months now, but I still run into people I haven’t seen for a while; people who found out on Facebook or Twitter that I’d moved jobs. “Hows the new job going?” they ask. “Great, thanks, really good!” is my normal reply. And then it comes. “So, uh, what do you do?”.
How do you describe Microsoft Lync in a way that everyone gets? It’s a hard one – partly because you only really “get Lync” after you start using it. It’s also frustrating because I (still) get really enthusiastic talking about Lync, and I want the other person to “get it” too. (I tried it once before, but I was in a hurry and it wasn’t very good.)
On the What is Lync page, Microsoft has this to say: “Microsoft® Lync™ ushers in a new connected user experience transforming every communication into an interaction that is more collaborative, engaging, and accessible from anywhere. For IT, the benefits are equally powerful, with a highly secure and reliable system that works with existing tools and systems for easier management, lower cost of ownership, smoother deployment and migration, and greater choice and flexibility.”
Microsoft Lync Server (previously Microsoft Office Communications Server) is an enterprise real-time communications server, providing the infrastructure for enterprise instant messaging, presence, file transfer, peer-to-peer and multiparty voice and video calling, ad hoc and structured conferences (audio, video and web) and, through a 3rd party gateway or SIP trunk, PSTN connectivity. These features are available within an organization, between organizations, and with external users on the public internet, or standard phones, on the PSTN as well as SIP trunking.
OK, that’s great – but what is it.
I’m going to try and do a
better different job of describing Lync by talking about some of its features, some of the things it lets you do, and why it matters. Hopefully by the end of it, you’ll have a good feel for what Lync is. Maybe, you’ll be as excited about it as I was when I first heard about it.
Think Google Talk or MSN Messenger, and you’ll have a good starting point. They’re Instant Message clients: they let people send text messages to each other. More recently, you can also communicate via voice and video – like Skype does.
The Lync that most people see is similar to that – a desktop application that sits in the taskbar. It has a list of contacts, which you use to interact with different people in a variety of different ways.
In Lync, you can send messages, use voice and video. You can also send files, and share your desktop (or certain applications within it) with other callers – either read-only or so they can control your keyboard and mouse. (good for IT troubleshooting!). You can do all this with one other person, or with groups of people, in group conversations, or presenter-attendee style conference sessions. For instance, I was recently in a group conference about Lync where the presenters were (I think) based at Microsoft, Redmond and the attendees were developers from all over the world. We communicated in a Lync group conference session.
We abuse email in the corporate workplace – have you ever received an email with no body, and just a one-liner question in the subject? That’s an Instant Message in hiding. You might not think there’s much difference – except that now you have one more message in your Inbox, once more thing to read, process, delete. One more conversation tree of 50 mails between a handful of people discussing why the air-conditioning is set how it is, with the entire office copied in. You don’t want to come back from holiday to that lot.
So far, so good – but nothing you couldn’t already do with MSN Messenger. However, Lync has been built with professional communication and collaboration in mind. One of the really big things about Lync is Presence. You’re probably already aware of presence in other instant messaging clients – you can show yourself as being Available, Away, Busy, etc.
There’s two things which (I think) make presence in Lync really useful. The first is that ‘Presence’ includes not only your actual status, but your location and an optional message about what you’re doing. Shown below is what my Lync contact card (extended view) looks like.
Straightaway, you can see I’m available – the green bar on the left tells you that. The bar comes in yellow and red as well – giving an instant recognisable indication of status. Secondly, you can see what I’m doing, and also where I am. The first time I connected to my home network I typed “Home” into the location box. (I didn’t have to, it’s an optional extra). Now, whenever I connect at home, Lync ‘knows’ I’m at home – so I don’t have to keep changing it. My location changes between work, home & the coffee shop, and I don’t have to do anything.
Just like location, I hardly ever change the presence status, and this is the second reason I think presence in Lync is particularly useful. Lync ‘sees’ my Outlook calendar – so if my calendar says I’m in a meeting between 10 and 2, my status will automatically change at 10 to “In a meeting”. Likewise, when I lock my computer, or leave it idle, my status changes to Inactive. If I start a voice or video call with someone, my status changes to In a Call. With MSN or Google Talk you’re constantly fiddling with your status to try and match what you’re doing. Honestly, I hardly ever change my Lync status manually, I just don’t need to.
By the same token, you can stop sending people an email, not really knowing when they’ll read it, how busy they, when you can expect an answer. You can see who’s busy, and who isn’t. If they’re available, drop them a quick IM for an answer, or a brief voice call to discuss, If they’re busy, either send them an email, knowing that you won’t get an immediate response, or find someone else who can answer, and is available. Productivity wins all round!
You probably don’t care about this, but your IT Department, or your CEO
does should. MSN is all very well, and in a technical sort of way, is really pretty secure. However, every message you send leaves your computer, goes over to a Microsoft sever in the USA somewhere, then comes all the way back again to your colleague on the next desk. Quite what happens to it inbetween is a bit of a mystery. It probably gets recorded somewhere. I think it’s more in the realm of conspiracy theory to think that the secret plans you’re discussing regarding the relaunch of WonderBike will be intercepted by the evil folks at SuperScooter, but there are potential Data Protection issues at hand. Another problem is that MSN can decide to not work, or have some scheduled maintenance, or temporary problem, normally just when you most need it.
With Lync, all the messages within your company stay within your company. Put simply, there’s a server within your organisation that receives all the messages and re-routes them. The messages never leave the building.
This also means that for companies where this sort of thing is important, every message sent and received can be centrally recorded and archived for posterity.
Of course, you can link up with other Lync users in other companies to trade messages. This is called federation, and can be managed: so, for instance, you get to decide which companies you will allow access to you and your users.
One of the nice things about Lync is that Microsoft are treating it as a full part of the Office suite. They’ve integrated Lync into the other line-of-business applications so that, wherever someone’s name appears, their presence shows alongside, with quick links to message, call etc.
In the image above I’ve shown Outlook, Sharepoint and Word integration, but there are other things you can do as well, such as present a Powerpoint slide in a Lync conference, or collaborate on slides together, remotely.
Of course, you’re not limited to the integration which Microsoft have built in. You can integrate pretty much any application you care to think of – and there are plenty where Lync integration will have an immediate, positive effect on productivity. There may also be entirely new applications which you can think of that can harness this technology, which come from people being more connected, more aware of each other and more able to collaborate. (aside: to finally answer the question from the first paragraph: this is what I do – develop new and exciting applications and uses using Lync technology.)
I’ve only really scraped the surface in terms of Lync’s features. There’s plenty of other things you can do with it to make it more useful, and to integrate your company together better. Taking just voice calls as an example: Lync can function as a PBX replacement – so you can allocate all your staff regular telephone numbers as you normally would, but incoming calls come through to their Lync application. Or, if you’d prefer, a Lync-enabled deskphone which looks and feels like a regular phone, but places all calls through Lync, like this one from Polycom (yes, the caller’s Lync contact card flashes up on the screen, nice!):
Lync can act as your voice mail service and will email you your voice mail messages. There’s a mobile app and rules to auto-forward to mobile.
As an example, I have a direct line, but no desk phone. My direct line goes straight to Lync, and I have a headset I use to make and receive calls. This means I can be anywhere – a hotel, at home, on the road (with the mobile app) and as long as I’m logged in with my status set to Available, anyone calling can get through to me. At work I’m 100 miles away from my physical direct line, and the Lync server. I’m logged on now, at home. No VPN, no funny stuff. The days of the classic PBX are numbered!
Hopefully, this has whetted your appetite. I’ve tried to find some non-technical posts that go into more detail about what Lync can do for you:
Firstly, the official Microsoft Lync Product Guide. It’s non-technical and covers lots of features.
There’s a huge stash of training resource in the Lync Adoption and Training Kit.
Within the training kit are some short videos that show you how to perform a number of different tasks. I thought these were really good, and well produced, and tried to find them hosted online – because although you can download them, that’s one step too far for busy professionals. I didn’t find a single page listed them all out – so I made one. You can find it here.
There are also some good training videos on Office Online.