Thursday, November 25, 2010

"Optimized for Lync" Devices

Over the years, I've used any number of devices to connect to Communicator/Lync.  I've used everything from cheap-o $20 headsets to some high-end OCS-specific phones. For the most part, these devices have worked out OK.  Some required a bit of fiddling to make work right, while others just worked with no fuss or bother. I've had headsets that make themselves the primary communications device without asking and not relinquish this to the previous primary device after unplugging it, which was a headache in Communicator. Others just worked and didn't bring much attention to itself, which is really the ultimate goal, isn't it?

My absolute go-to office audio device for the past few years has been the Plantronics Savi Office Convertible headset. It connects to both my PC and my PSTN desk phone and works like a charm.  It's a very good desktop headset solution.  With DECT 6.0 wireless, I can wander a good distance from my house and still maintain a good connection. The sound quality is excellent.  I do have a few gripes with it, though.  I can't use the over-the-ear earpiece because of my apparently oddly-shaped ears (earbuds NEVER fit me). I have to resort to the over-the-head headset. Plus, the earpiece bothers my ear after wearing it for an extended period.  Another minor issue is the lack of wind cancellation technology. In the summertime, I like to work outside on my patio in the "office hammock".  The slightest breeze gets picked up by the headset and annoys the person on the other end (maybe they were upset because I was working from a hammock and they weren't). Granted, the Savi Office isn't meant for use outdoors, so I can't really knock it for that.  Overall, its been the one thing I keep using out of my pile of headsets.
My summer office. Beer fridge well out of reach.
For my cell phone, I've been using the BlueAnt Z9i. It's a Bluetooth headset that works with both mobile phones and PCs. I've got it paired with both my laptop and mobile phone. It's extraordinarily tiny and unobtrusive. For mobile use, it's excellent.  Great volume and voice isolation. However, I found it lacking when I used it with Communicator/Lync on my laptop. It sounded fine for use with PSTN or mobile communications, but the sound quality just didn't match up to the higher fidelity of Communicator/Lync's wideband audio. Sure, it was primarily designed for mobile use, but I never used it much for Communicator/Lync because of the lack of wideband audio.

I recently became fortunate enough to gain possession of a good variety of Plantronics devices to showcase at a presentation I'll be doing on Lync.  I have the Calisto 540 desk phone, the Calisto 420 speakerphone, the Voyager PRO UC, the Savi 430 and the Blackwire 420. The one thing all these devices have in common is they are all optimized for Communicator/Lync.
Installing and using all these devices is as simple as plugging it into an available USB port. To have a little fun, I decided to see what it would be like to install all the devices and see how Lync handles it. Windows 7 x64 picked up and installed the required drivers for all without asking for input. Lync detected each of them and named them appropriately. Selecting which device to use was very simple.  I could easily select a default device for all my calls and switch between them seamlessly while on a call.  Lync even gave a specific speakerphone-like icon to the Calisto 420 speakerphone.

A few quick notes on each device:
  • The Blackwire 420 is a very comfortable, nice-sounding binaural USB-corded headset with integrated volume, mute and call pickup/hangup buttons. It folds flat into a little carrying case, making it ideal for travel. This replaces my old Plantronics one-ear headset, which didn't really travel all that well.
  • the Calisto 420 speakerphone really just a speaker with 360-degree microphone that will fit in your hand. Its perfect for ad-hoc conference calls and is fairly portable.
  • The Voyager PRO UC is replacing my BlueAnt. It fits over-the-ear, connects to my mobile phone and my PC at the same time, has great wideband audio quality for Lync calls and is super-comfortable to wear (and doesn't fall out of my good-for-nothing ears). As for how it deals with extraneous noise, like wind on the hammock, I can't tell yet. It's November, and definitely not hammock weather in these parts. My only wish is that it were DECT 6.0 so I could wander far away from my PC, as I tend to do while on long conference calls. It charges via a USB cable only, so while its not great if you're in the office, its fine if you're on the road....which this is meant for.
  • The Savi 430 has the same form-factor as the Voyager PRO UC, but it doesn't do Bluetooth. It does have DECT 6.0 for my wanderings and a nice desk charger, just like the Savi Office. Now if I could take the DECT 6.0 and the desk charger option of this headset and the Bluetooth capabilities of the Voyager PRO UC and mash them together, then that product would be the absolute perfect headset for all my needs.
  • Last but definitely not least is the Calisto 540 desk phone. It's a perfect, inexpensive deskphone for people who still want a standard phone experience. It connects via USB to your computer and is driven by Lync (it won't work on its own like other more expensive phones). You can use it like a regular deskphone, or you can use Lync to dial, answer, hang up etc. This phone has the capability to really make a strong showing in the corporate world. It's simple, inexpensive, doesn't require its own power supply or network connection, and still provides users with a rich Lync experience.
My troublefree experience with all these devices has shown me what the whole "Optimized for Lync" thing means when it comes to devices.  I used to think it merely meant it would do wideband audio. I now realize it also means trouble-free installation and use, which is more than I can say for some of the non-Lync optimized headsets I've tried.

Plantronics really has done a great job with their Optimized for Lync line of products. In my opinion, they are the ones to beat in this segment of the market. Whether or not you choose Plantronics devices for your company or yourself, I believe that any device you pick should have the Optimized for Lync logo on it. Doing so might cost you more than your typical $20 POS, but in the long run it will pay for itself in ease-of-use, better performance, reduced helpdesk calls, and lower frustration levels.

In case of lawyers, please note that the opinions presented here are mine alone and are not representative of my employer or any other vendor, Plantronics included.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Response Group Changes in Lync

The Response Group Service (RGS) is a basic hunt group/interactive voice response system included with OCS/Lync.  While it doesn't have the features of a full-fledged call center application, it is still extremely handy for a lot of companies that don't require (or want to pay for) a separate solution. 

Response Groups in Lync haven't changed significantly since the OCS R2 days. You still have to create and manage the hunt group/IVR workflow via a web-based console that is separate from the main Lync Control Panel.  There is a Workflow tab within the Response Groups section of the Control Panel, but clicking on the Create or edit a workflow button will open up a separate IE window where you manage workflows. The interface is very similar to the OCS R2 version. Why they couldn't port the webpage into the Silverlight Control Panel is beyond me. It couldn't be that difficult to translate. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lync Telephony - Corporate Interest is Running High

I'll be the first to admit that I've got a certain level of bias when it comes to Microsoft products. I'm pretty sure they installed some sort of mind-control chip in my brain when I worked there as a technical support guy back in the MS-DOS 6.2 days. If there is a chip rattling around my skull, it does malfunction from time to time, because I've never been afraid to knock MS for putting out some truly dreadful crap over the years.

When Microsoft does get it right, it gets it right in a big way. Exchange is one of those things. It seems to be the gold standard for corporate email systems, and with good cause.  Its extremely stable, rich in features and most importantly, easy to use across many different platforms (PC, web, mobile). My perception could be skewed, because as an Exchange/OCS/Lync consultant, I'm not going to be called into a company for help with Lotus Notes (unless its to help migrate to Exchange).

For all my love of OCS, I noticed that most of the companies that wanted to use it weren't really interested in the Enterprise Voice functionality. They would use OCS for its terrific IM capabilities, easy-to-use client and admittedly so-so conferencing features (I knocked a bunch of points off mainly for the poor Live Meeting interface).  I always thought they would organically grow into Enterprise Voice, but it didn't happen as often as I thought it would.  Overall, I thought OCS was a fantastic product, but there were some obvious holes that made it less than ideal for replacing a PBX.  The biggest omission was call admission control and any real resiliency for voice communications.  Companies saw that, and maybe felt that OCS was a little too version 1.0 to trust for their telephony needs.

Lync Server 2010 changes all that. Its a truly unified communications platform. OCS's missing features (call admission control, voice resiliency etc) are now in place, and Live Meeting has been dropped in favour of a single client that combines all the features of Communicator and Live Meeting in one very easy-to-use package. I don't think any of MS's competitors can claim to provide all the features of Lync under one product SKU (I'm looking at you, Cisco).

Sure, my mindset could be affected by my Microsoft bias (damn you mind-control chip!).  However, in the recent few weeks, I've noticed a dramatic change in the inquiries and requests for proposals coming my way at the consulting company I work for. Rather than just being interested in the basic IM and web conferencing features, almost every corporate customer is keenly interested in exploring Enterprise Voice.  Recent partnerships, including the one with Polycom for enterprise video conferencing, means that Lync can very well be the all-encompassing corporate unified communications platform it intends to be.

It reminds me of that not-so-long-ago time when most corporate customers were extremely wary of moving their telephony systems into the TCP/IP network space. Almost overnight, the wariness was replaced by enthusiasm as it was shown to be a safe and reliable way to reduce costs, administration overhead and provide improved features.

Have we reached a similar tipping point in regards to Lync?  It seems as though Microsoft may have gotten this product release right, and the corporate world is ready to give them the chance to prove that Lync can be the future of telephony. Will Lync be the Exchange Server for telephony? Time will tell, but I've got a good feeling about this....

Friday, November 5, 2010

Lync Call Recording

Greetings all, its been a while since I've updated this blog and for good reason.  I just got back from a week-long trip up to a VERY remote mine site above the Arctic Circle in Alaska.  I did an Exchange 2007 to Exchange 2010 migration, including UM. It was cold, dark much of the time but starkly beautiful.  Not somewhere I'd consider living, but was pretty cool to visit.

While I was away, things definitely happened on the Lync front. It's gone RTM (as I'm sure everyone already knows). It was frustrating being so remote, because the Internet connection just wasn't fast enough for me to download the bits.  Now I'm back home and able to really get into things.

I had a customer call the other day talking about deploying Lync.  One thing he was very interested in is the Call Recording feature. He wanted to have the ability for users to record calls with clients for documentation purposes.  I hadn't spent much time (well, no time) with call recording in Lync, so I figured now was a good time to check it out.