Microsoft's Skype Buy Could Boost Unified Communications

Microsoft's $8.5 billion acquisition of Skype could profoundly influence a set of collaboration and conferencing technologies called Unified Communications (UC) that have taken years to catch on, analysts said Thursday.

The deal, announced Tuesday, would likely benefit Microsoft by connecting Skype's free, mostly consumer-grade, Internet voice and video service -- used by millions worldwide -- with Microsoft's own Lync UC product for delivering enterprise-grade audio, video, chat and Web conferencing, analysts said.

Even videoconferencing vendor Polycom saw the Skype acquisition as a plus, since Polycom is already a close partner to Microsoft and would benefit from a Lync integration with Skype.

The acquisition "takes Skype out of the competitive equation," said Polycom CEO Andy Miller. "The integration of Lync and Skype is positive for Polycom because the better Lync performs, the greater our opportunity in terms of [selling enterprise quality] video endpoints, software and infrastructure. "

Acquiring Skype "puts Microsoft in a commanding position in the consumer UC-as-a-service market," Forrester Research analyst Henry Dewing wrote in a blog .

Dewing noted that Skype's free service has come without guarantees for quality of service free of interruptions that many businesses insist on when they buy Lync and other UC products from Cisco , Avaya and others.

Another Forrester analyst, Ted Schadler, said Microsoft can blend the worlds of free consumer-grade UC with paid Lync services for enterprises through a yet-to-be developed managed gateway between Skype and Lync.

"People could use Lync-to-Lync to connect to colleagues and Lync-to-Skype to connect to customers and partners with video, audio and chat," Schadler blogged .

Schadler said that Skype falls into a category he refers to as a "consumerization brand," which means it is valuable not only to consumers but to people who use it to get their jobs done. "Consumerization of IT is just people using familiar consumer tools to get work done," he said.

A third Forrester analyst, Charles Golvin, took the point about UC even further: "Microsoft's acquisition of Skype shows that traditional walls among communication networks and modes have been eviscerated. Email, instant messaging and voice over both fixed and mobile networks are becoming one massive river of communications.

"Skype brings Microsoft technology to futher unite these communications, consumers and businesses," Golvin said.

While Polycom said it was pleased by the Skype acquisition, other UC vendors like Avaya , Mitel and NEC could be disrupted, said Steve Hilton, an analyst at Analysys Mason. Although some analysts said Microsoft moved to prevent Google from buying Skype , another major UC player, Cisco, has also been left out of the equation.

Hilton noted that while Skype does have a business-grade product "it is still a consumer-grade solution [and] enterprises don't want low-quality communications services when dealing with customers."

Hilton said Avaya partnered last year with Skype technology for business users, but questioned whether that partnership has yielded much success for Avaya.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

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