Lync, Skype, and IM

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I can’t recall when I started using Skype – probably around 2007. It’s incredibly useful – at least it was.

I’ve begun removing contacts from Skype because their presence indication is always green/available. Presence is one of the key features of IM and always green makes it unproductive. It goes something like this. I am away from my desk, and someone attempts an IM conversation and sends “YT?” I come back hours later and see the message and respond, but of course now they are gone. They come back hours later and then respond. All day we keep sending messages like “YT?” and “Yes,” but never actually connect. This makes ring-no-answer look a boon to productivity.

Prior to Skype I was using AIM. I’m actually using AIM again because Wainhouse Research uses AIM. It’s not sexy but does IM well, and there’s a surprising number of consumers and businesses still using it. I use the Pidgen client with AIM, but it works with many services. AIM lost favor because AOL neglected it – the free service went against the grain of the company. Too bad, WhatsApp just sold for $19B to Facebook – a market that AOL had owned before anyone knew it was a market. There’s tremendous value in free.

Public IM fills an important role that is about to become much more important – cross-organizational real-time communications.

Consumers call it IM or instant messaging, but the enterprise calls it by its other function – Presence. Either way, it is a very important and useful means of real-time (usually) communication. Skype expanded IM to include click-to-call, video calls/conferencing, and file transfer. There are lots of alternatives to each of these services, but Skype packages it all together – including PSTN in a freemium model.

I won’t mention which companies, but I use Skype with employees at several enterprise collaboration companies. They offer competitive products, but they are not so easily used with external contacts. Most enterprise collaboration tools are either meant for internal colleagues or guests. Guests generally can’t collaborate at will – they have to wait until the appointed time and then can participate in that one session. The fact that other UC vendors need a solution like Skype to collaborate with external folks portends trouble.

With Skype you can initiate conversations, calls, or file transfers anytime. It has persistent history too. It’s quite ingenious on many levels – it took time for the enterprise to acknowledge Skype – but for the past four or so years every UC vendor has been improving their applications to be more Skype-like. I’ve always been a big fan of Skype – until recently. More often than not, I am becoming annoyed with Skype. I don’t know if the service is actually becoming worse or if my standards are rising, but it no longer fills the role of real-time Swiss Army gadget that it once did.

Here’s a few of my gripes:

  • I already mentioned inaccurate presence detection. Several of my regular contacts are almost always “green” in Skype. I have to turn to Lync or even Google Talk to see if they are really there are not. In some cases its the mobile client causing trouble, in other cases it is their settings. Whatever the cause it’s a poor design because it’s a common problem.
  • Video quality. I discovered video calling on Skype – but find it very frustrating now. To be fair, it is a free app – but I find neither the quality nor the reliability acceptable. The quality seems high until you switch to an enterprise-class video solution. I usually use a solution powered by Vidyo, but I’ve had great luck with just about everything but Skype. Also, more often then not, my Skype connections fail. It’s like an iPhone and ATT in 2010 – conversations never end with “bye.”
  • Multiple client synchronization. I primarily use my desktop, but switch to my MS Surface Pro 3 when I am on the go. I start it up, and all these old/read messages start loading – as new. Why can’t Skype figure out that I’ve already read – even responded to – these messages? This does not happen on other IM services.

Despite these flaws, Skype will likely remain very popular in the consumer space for quite some time. However, a new series of WebRTC-esque applications are emerging. I just did a Wainhouse Research report on four of them – Biba is fairly polished – enterprise oriented. Vobi is a bit rougher but nice integration with hosted voice. Sqwiggle has an ingenious take on video. Kato was designed from ground-up to be multi-organizational.

I think Microsoft was pretty smart to buy Skype . I initially predicted Cisco would do, and they blew it. Skype gives Microsoft Lync a huge benefit that hasn’t been fully realized yet in terms of cross organizational UC. All UC apps have IM/presence, voice, and video – yet getting them to work across organizational boundaries is very difficult. To this day, most business communication occurs over narrow-band telephone and email. The UC vendors have been boasting how effective IM/P and video are for years, but haven’t done a lot to extend them to an organization’s customers, partners, and suppliers.  There are some limited options such as  Lync sites federating, but that requires CIO approval on both sides. Power lies in ad-hoc team-based collaboration.

Since Microsoft acquired Skype there has been minor improvements, but clearly the intent is seamless and complete integration. This will provide Lync with B2C and B2B full UC and none of the other enterprise UC vendors can match this. A business can’t even get a worldwide toll-free number, but can get a full UC enabled “toll-free” Skype-ID. Add in a contact center solution (yes, third party) and that becomes very powerful. Of course, it isn’t clear MS can actually pull it off. I have Lync Online and I can’t figure out how to add a Skype contact to it. This is why Google Hangouts is so interesting. Hangouts lives between Skype and Lync with prosumer capabilities. Google recently moved Hangouts out of Goog+ and improved its SLA.

The next big battleground in UC will be inter-organizational. Lync-Skype are poised. Google has the C part, but not the B part. Cisco, Mitel, Avaya, and the others have the B part but not the C part. The real space to watch will be new start-ups that leverage WebRTC and Chrome. These firms enable multi-user collaboration with fairly impressive UC suites.

Dave Michels