Last week's Windows Phone 7 launch drew attention to Microsoft's consumer side. But a company of Microsoft's size necessarily has other areas of focus; and this week, it was the business-product end of Redmond's operations that seemed to attract news attention.
Microsoft formally launched Lync 2010, the rebranding of its Office Communications software suite, with a New York City event Nov. 17. Lync provides business users with a unified software platform for enterprise telephony, instant messaging, and video and audio conferencing; in addition, it integrates tightly with software platforms such as Microsoft Office, SharePoint and Exchange.
Lync displays a good deal of flexibility for the office environment, allowing users to select multiple people from a contact list to make a group call, and then allowing groups to collaborate on the same commonly shared document. Integration with services such as Exchange means that Lync will, for instance, auto-update its users' statuses if they're in a meeting or otherwise occupied.
"Lync is the linchpin to our communications strategy," Chris Capossela, senior vice president of Microsoft's Information Worker Product Management group, said during his keynote at the event.
Research firm Forrester estimates that the overall unified communications market will be worth $14.5 billion by 2015, making that strategy a potentially vital part of Microsoft's bottom line. So vital, in fact, that former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates himself made an appearance at the Lync launch event-appropriately enough, onscreen via the software's video-conferencing capability.
"When you looked at PBX, it sort of just sat there by itself," Gates told the audience, referring to the traditional telephone exchanges servicing an office or business. "That isolation meant it wasn't an available platform" for software development.
He also termed the software-driven, unified communications platform as "probably the most important thing to happen for the office worker since the PC came along."
Lync also interfaces with Windows Live Messenger and the Kinect hands-free gaming controller, in the latter case allowing users to activate video conferencing through gesture. "The way people work has really dramatically shifted, and the blending of home life and work life has been really quite extreme," Capossela said in a Nov. 17 conversation with eWEEK. "We felt we wanted [Lync] to scale all the way down, so people could use that one system to connect with their friends and family who aren't connected with that software."
Speaking of that blurring between consumer and business realms, Facebook's revamped messaging platform now boasts tighter integration with Microsoft Office, offering Microsoft a new way to challenge cloud-based productivity software such as Google Docs.
"Facebook's new messaging platform integrates the Office Web Apps to enable Facebook users to view Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents with just one click," Takeshi Numoto, corporate vice president for Microsoft Office, wrote in a Nov. 15 posting on The Microsoft Office Blog. "Now you can easily share those ideas with your friends and family on Facebook."
Facebook messages now include the tab "View on Office.com," which will open a stripped-down version of the Word, Excel or PowerPoint document in a new browser window. Users can also download the attachment to their hard drive, where it can be opened using Office.
Facebook and Microsoft have previously collaborated on similar productivity initiatives, including Docs for Facebook, an online applications platform that also lets Facebook users create and share Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. Under the guidance of departing Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie, Microsoft has angled increasingly towards social-networking applications and integration; in October 2009 he launched Microsoft incubator FUSE (Future Social Experiences) Labs in order to capitalize on social-networking opportunities developed by Microsoft Research and any associated entities.
Despite Microsoft's aggression with regard to the cloud and social networking, the company still draws the bulk of its revenues from traditional lines of business such as Windows and Office. Microsoft's stock has remained largely stagnant for a decade, leading to investor complaints during the company's annual shareholder meeting.
During a question-and-answer session at that meeting, Ballmer suggested that breaking up the company-something suggested by one self-described "frustrated" stockholder-would create "economic dis-synergies" and "a harder time competing for all relevant parties."
Ballmer also defended his plans to sell 75 million shares of Microsoft by the end of 2010. He holds 4 percent of the company's stock, second only to Gates with just over 7 percent.
Nonetheless, that sale comes at an auspicious time, as the company and its investors look for signs that some of its more expensive projects are succeeding in the marketplace. Microsoft announced this week that Kinect had sold more than 1 million units in its first 10 days of release, making it a short-term hit. However, it has yet to announce any official sales numbers for Windows Phone 7, its heavily publicized smartphone platform.
And anyone who felt they missed out on Microsoft's Kin One and Kin Two social-networking phones-which died an ignoble death after several weeks' worth of poor sales earlier in 2010-your proverbial ship has arrived: Verizon is now offering both devices, as feature phones, through its Website. Microsoft hopes that Windows Phone 7 will perform just a little bit better.